Listening to Good Writing: The Case of Zinsser and This American Life
We can love a book for so many reasons, but one of them, maybe the essential one, is good writing. But good writing does not necessarily have to be printed in a book, and it does not even need to be read. William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, an acclaimed book that was mentioned in an earlier post, has come to learn this truth at the age of 90. The New York Times recently published an article about Zinsser, whose eyesight has now been significantly damaged from glaucoma. Although no longer able to read himself, Zinsser now meets writers in one-on-one sessions in order to listen to works in progress.
To me, good writing can be a good listen, even for long periods of time. The clearest example, in my mind, is The American Life, a public radio show that is both broadcast on more than 500 stations and available online. Ira Glass, who is the host and executive producer, and his staff of producers and writers, create hour-long shows each week. Sometimes the hour is broken down into separate segments; other times, the entire hour is dedicated to one story, which is often told by a single producer.
This American Life proves that good writing can be listened to. First, some of the segments were originally printed as short stories, novellas, parts of novels or memoirs. This may be an obvious point, but there is something to be said about the standards of This American Life. The printed text they chose to read on a radio show has to be clear, simple, effective writing–as we on the other side can only listen to it, just like Zinsser. Second, they produce original stories and apply the same standard. Sure, a story could include an interviewee that cannot express themselves clearly, but the job of the producer is to fill the spaces with writing that will, when read into the microphone, tell a story that is entertaining and insightful because it is written so clearly.