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Book review: Writing to Learn, by William Zinsser

Review by Rev Ian Dewar, Lead Chaplain, University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust



What is the point of a book?  Well, the point of this book is really simple, and the clue is in the title – you actually learn by writing. That may sound like a statement of the obvious, but the obvious is rarely – well, obvious.


How many of us, when we sit down to think about problem or a task – assuming that we do think – turn those thoughts into words?  My guess is not many.


I’m not being dismissive when I say: ‘assuming that we do think’ because most of us think a little less that we would like to admit, 10 minutes on x formerly known as Twitter, should convince us of that. And that is one of the stresses of our current situation; people have answers before they have questions.


Let’s take a simple example from healthcare. If people exercised more, we could reduce Type 2 diabetes, we could improve people’s psychological wellbeing and if they are physically healthier, we can reduce the chances of slips, trips and falls. So, we have campaigns of encouraging people to exercise more. Indeed, healthcare is full of campaigns that can be highly costly but bear little fruit.


If, instead of a campaign based on an ‘answer’, we started with a piece of data – exercise is good for you – and turned that into a question: ‘how could I persuade 63-year-old Mr Smith, who has arthritis, to exercise more?’ it becomes a very different conversation. But - and this is a big but - don’t talk about it, write it down.


The moment that you physically commit a question to paper, that question becomes more real.  The next stage is to write down your answer.


Why do we write down our answers? Because very often we don’t know what we think until we articulate it and we don’t understand what we think until we try to communicate it.


This book is an example of that. It is the author’s journey to discovering that writing is not limited to just communication or story telling, and that academically it shouldn’t be limited to English or history.  In an example, he tells a story of a young person solving a maths problem by turning it into a detective story: ‘As I sat in my office on Saturday morning waiting for a case, suddenly a sharp knock came upon my door.’


The power of writing something down is that if forces us to think and it creates a conversation between us and our thoughts. One of the things that I enjoy and dislike in equal measure is when I get someone to proofread something that I have written, and what I ‘thought’ was obvious and clear comes back with - ‘not sure what you mean here.’


The book is an easy, amiable read.  It is helpfully divided into two sections: (1) the author’s journey (2) examples from different field e.g. maths, art, so you can read the journey and dip into the different fields at will. There are a few second hand copies out there and although originally written 30 years ago, it grows more relevant for our times.


Should anyone doubt the power of writing to clarify or obscure meaning, if not done well, Zinsser uses the example of George Orwell’s parody on bureaucratic thinking in his ‘Politics and the English Language’.


The original:


I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

  • Book of Ecclesiastes, King James Bible


Orwell’s parody:


Here it is in modern English:


Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.


“This is a parody, but not a very gross one...”


As in this conclusion:


To write is to think, to read this book is to be reminded that thinking and writing are powerful and necessary partners in leveraging  resources when facing the challenges of life and trying to communicate important messages to people so that they can be active participants in their own learning and deep dive into the possibilities that life holds in store for them.


I think, or do I need to rewrite that?  Ah yes, to write is to think and to read this book is to be encouraged to think, write down my thoughts and think them again until they are sharp.  Yes, that’s what I want to say!


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