Sweet Clarity: Zinsser on Mitchell and Ruff


Dwike Mitchell and Willie Ruff


William Zinsser

The jazz pianist Dwike Mitchell died this week, and I thought of Willie Ruff, his playing partner for almost 60 years, but mostly of William Zinsser, the teacher of all of us in the matter of writing well. Zinsser, of course, gave us On Writing Well, Writing to Learn, and other classics on craft. But he also produced, in 1984, a book originally titled Willie and Dwike (later changed to Ruff and Mitchell: An American Profile in Jazz). The first piece is the author’s account of the journey the two musicians made to China in 1981 to lead workshops in jazz for young people, the first American performers to do so. Every sentence in the essay is strong and necessary. But I thought I would quote here only the first sentence, to remind us not to try to infuse emotion, or to dazzle for effect, in the opening of a piece. The opening paragraph is always an invitation — one that readers can accept or decline. So let’s look at this one:

“Jazz came to China for the first time on the afternoon of June 2, 1981, when the American bassist and French horn player Willie Ruff introduced himself and his partner, the pianist Dwike Mitchell, to several hundred students and professors who were crowded into a large room at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.”

What a sweet, clear invitation. No attempt to evoke emotion from readers, only curiosity and the intention to give them a sense of what made this unusual, and to also create a sense of expectation in the clearest language possible. Zinsser, having experienced deeply emotional moments during the workshops, knew not to try to put the reader in that position. It had taken him a lot of time and effort, after all, to reach that point himself. Why wouldn’t the reader need the same amount of investment in order to receive the emotional payoff?

When editors or agents read your work, they look for such clarity, though you may think they’re looking to be dazzled. Emotion — there is plenty to come in the Willie and Dwike piece — is only possible once readers are invested in the characters. So many novice writers make the mistake of trying to show that emotion right off. That’s not the place in novels or in movies that makes readers or audiences cry with delight or sadness. Zinsser knows how to build a piece. Read his books. They are clear. And they will entice you from the first sentences.





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2 Responses to Sweet Clarity: Zinsser on Mitchell and Ruff

  1. Cindy Brown Austin says:

    Clarity, as Zinsser has proven time and time again, seems to be directly connected to authority of simplicity, wouldn’t you say?

    Enjoyed the blog immensely.

  2. That turned out to be the main lesson I learned by writing a book in 2004 called Writing About Your Life. It’s a memoir of my own life, but it’s also a teaching book—along the way I explain the reducing and organizing decisions I made. I never felt that my memoir had to include all the important things that ever happened to me—a common temptation when old people sit down to summarize their life journey. On the contrary, many of the chapters in my book are about small episodes that were not objectively “important” but that were important to me. Because they were important to me they also struck an emotional chord with readers, touching a universal truth that was important to them.

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