Stupid like Thoreau

I've been constantly teaching some aspect of the writing process for over 15 years.  Because we homeschool, I get to show the preschooler how to hold a pencil and the high schooler when to use parenthetical documentation.  Early years are full of copywork, dictation and written narrations while the later years are spent studying the masters - E.B. White,  William Strunk, William Zinsser, et al.

Recently, William Zinsser, author of the classic On Writing Well, addressed a group of incoming international students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.  I just love this speech and want to highlight some of my favorite parts.

Zinnser talks about the evils of Latin nouns, warning writers to avoid the implementation of  multi-syllable, unspecific, descriptive behemoths.  Oops.   Let me try again.


Zinsser warns against using long, vague, flowery words.

That's better.

Zinsser then goes on to encourage the use of Anglo-Saxon nouns:
So if those are the bad nouns, what are the good nouns? The good nouns are the thousands of short, simple, infinitely old Anglo-Saxon nouns that express the fundamentals of everyday life: house, home, child, chair, bread, milk, sea, sky, earth, field, grass, road … words that are in our bones, words that resonate with the oldest truths. When you use those words, you make contact—consciously and also subconsciously—with the deepest emotions and memories of your readers. Don’t try to find a noun that you think sounds more impressive or “literary.” Short Anglo-Saxon nouns are your second-best tools as a journalist writing in English.
 Great advice, don't you think? If you want to know what he thinks are the best tools, read the article.

He ends the speech with four guidelines for writing good English - clarity, simplicity, brevity and humanity.  In talking about simplicity, he tells of a student from Nigeria who told him that if she wrote simple sentences with short words, people would think she was stupid.  He wanted to say, "Stupid like Thoreau."  Thoreau being the great American author of Walden who wrote with brevity, simplicity and power.  Zinsser cites other examples, Abraham Lincoln among others.

I  don't agree with everything he says about writing and the article has launched some spirited discussions with Porfiry about the use of descriptive words. Nevertheless, if you are helping anyone with writing or you could use some advice yourself (pick me!), I recommend reading the entire speech.  It's chock-full of interesting advice on writing well.


  1. I have to say that you do write well, and express your thoughts with brief, yet powerful statements. This is a goal of mine this year, especially in my speaking: to be clear, concise, yet thought provoking! The other half of the equation: to listen well.

  2. Wow! I'm against flowery speech for its own sake, but I always recommend using power-packed "meaty" words rather than simple ones to my writing class. I guess I'm thinking more of verbs than nouns, though. Interesting!