I’m only just now reading this book, but it was a bit like discovering an old friend you didn’t know you had. Zinsser’s is the kind of casual, unassuming writing that sounds effortless, but isn’t. I tend not to read (or recommend) books on writing, as the best education you can have is just to read great books. But I’ll make this an exception.
We have this phrase—“in real life”—to distinguish between the life that goes on in our pockets and the one that happens on the street. In theory, it privileges our most important relationships, the ones where we see people every day (or nearly so). But the obvious corollary to a “faux” life grates more and more each day. Is life online necessarily less real?
Zinsser writes that “the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is.” Meaning, the best writing is an expression of the writer’s self, a peek into their obsessions or fears. This is why an article on a topic for which you care little can be engrossing; what you are drawn to is not the subject matter, but the person telling the story.
And this is just as true of so-called frivolous writing on the web as it is of more crafted writing, including the offhand writing of a tweet or status update. The content of a particular tweet isn’t what’s valuable or interesting; it’s the person it reveals. Some deride this as false intimacy—as creating the sense that you know someone when in fact you do not. But I think that’s a mistake. It is not a complete intimacy, but it is a true one.