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How William Zinsser Helped Writers Overcome Their Fear of the Word Processor

William Zinsser, writer, editor, and teacher of the craft of nonfiction writing, died this week at 92. Generations of writers have relied on the patient, realistic, and humane advice (“Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this as a consolation in moments of despair”) of his classic book On Writing Well, first published in 1976.

At the beginning of the 1980s, Zinsser took a special interest in helping his fellow writers overcome their fear of the word processor. As a fellow former technophobe who first viewed this new contraption as a threat to his craft and way of life, he held their hands as he showed them the ropes, both in a supplemental chapter to On Writing Well as well as a separate book called Writing With a Word Processor.

His first encounter with word processing was on a visit to the New York Times newsroom. The writers sat in front of screens in a “cool and sterile environment.” He was alarmed. Where was the noisy hammer of typewriters? The wadded up paper everywhere? This was not what a newsroom was supposed to look like. “The drones at their machines could have been processing insurance claims or tracking a spacecraft in orbit.” It didn’t look like writing to him and he wanted nothing to do with it.

But he realized this was the way forward whether he liked it or not and finally purchased a machine for himself. Then he started to proselytize to the anti-word processing gang, who argued that it would make writing too impersonal and robotic, or that it was simply too difficult to learn.

Zinsser explained that he was “a liberal arts type, with all the hang-ups that come out of that tradition – and also many of the snobberies” who had come around to the new way of life. He had thought that “writing at a terminal would involve whole new mental processes—that the machine would make my writing mechanical. But it seemed quite natural.”

He touted its benefits, which seem quaint today, but were pretty miraculous for a generation of writers raised in piles of crumpled paper and long hours of retyping work:

“It puts your words right in front of your eyes for your instant consideration.” 

“You can play with your writing on the screen until you get it right, and paragraphs will keep rearranging themselves, no matter how many words you change or add or cut, and you don’t have to print it until it’s just the way you want it.”

When you want to add something, “you just type it in. The existing sentences will move to the right to make room for it, and  the paragraph will regroup itself with the new material added.”

“The machine will paginate your entire article, putting the same number of lines on each page, and the printer will type it while you go and have a beer.”

In essence, the word processor was no threat because it was only a tool. Writing was still writing, not necessarily easier, but less burdened by busywork: “The word processor is the writer’s dishwasher: it liberates you from a chore that’s not creative and saps your energy and enthusiasm.”

And, quite possibly, it could even make you write better: “The machine is forgiving: it invites you to take risks, to try things out, to fly a little. If the flight doesn’t work, nobody will ever know—you can delete it and try something else. But at least you have stretched your muscles and your sense of possibility. Maybe next time you will soar.”

I wish I could say I’m going to have a beer now while I upload this to the website, but that process goes so fast there isn’t time for one. Kinda makes you long for the old days of the word processor/printer setup. A virtual, digital toast then, to William Zinsser. 

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15 Powerful Quotes From Margaret Atwood
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MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images

It turns out the woman behind such eerily prescient novels as The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake is just as wise as her tales are haunting. Here are 15 of the most profound quips from author, activist, and Twitter enthusiast Margaret Atwood, who was born on this day in 1939.

1. On her personal philosophy

 “Optimism means better than reality; pessimism means worse than reality. I’m a realist.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

2. On the reality of being female

“Men often ask me, Why are your female characters so paranoid? It’s not paranoia. It’s recognition of their situation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

3. On limiting how her politics influence her characters

“You know the myth: Everybody had to fit into Procrustes’ bed and if they didn’t, he either stretched them or cut off their feet. I’m not interested in cutting the feet off my characters or stretching them to make them fit my certain point of view.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

4. On so-called “pretty” works of literature

“I don’t know whether there are any really pretty novels … All of the motives a human being may have, which are mixed, that’s the novelists’ material. … We like to think of ourselves as really, really good people. But look in the mirror. Really look. Look at your own mixed motives. And then multiply that.”

— From a 2010 interview with The Progressive

5. On the artist’s relationship with her fans

“The artist doesn’t necessarily communicate. The artist evokes … [It] actually doesn’t matter what I feel. What matters is how the art makes you feel.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

6. On the challenges of writing non-fiction

“When I was young I believed that ‘nonfiction’ meant ‘true.’ But you read a history written in, say, 1920 and a history of the same events written in 1995 and they’re very different. There may not be one Truth—there may be several truths—but saying that is not to say that reality doesn’t exist.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

7. On poetry

“The genesis of a poem for me is usually a cluster of words. The only good metaphor I can think of is a scientific one: dipping a thread into a supersaturated solution to induce crystal formation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

8. On being labeled an icon

“All these things set a standard of behavior that you don’t necessarily wish to live up to. If you’re put on a pedestal you’re supposed to behave like a pedestal type of person. Pedestals actually have a limited circumference. Not much room to move around.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

9. On how we’re all born writers

“[Everyone] ‘writes’ in a way; that is, each person has a ‘story’—a personal narrative—which is constantly being replayed, revised, taken apart and put together again. The significant points in this narrative change as a person ages—what may have been tragedy at 20 is seen as comedy or nostalgia at 40.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

10. On the oppression at the center of The Handmaid's Tale

“Nothing makes me more nervous than people who say, ‘It can’t happen here. Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.” 

— From a 2015 lecture to West Point cadets

11. On the discord between men and women

“‘Why do men feel threatened by women?’ I asked a male friend of mine. … ‘They’re afraid women will laugh at them,’ he said. ‘Undercut their world view.’ … Then I asked some women students in a poetry seminar I was giving, ‘Why do women feel threatened by men?’ ‘They’re afraid of being killed,’ they said.”

— From Atwood’s Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, 1960-1982

12. On the challenges of expressing oneself

“All writers feel struck by the limitations of language. All serious writers.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

13. On selfies

“I say they should enjoy it while they can. You’ll be happy later to have taken pictures of yourself when you looked good. It’s human nature. And it does no good to puritanically say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be doing that,’ because people do.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

14. On the value of popular kids' series (à la Harry Potter and Percy Jackson)

"It put a lot of kids onto reading; it made reading cool. I’m sure a lot of later adult book clubs came out of that experience. Let people begin where they are rather than pretending that they’re something else, or feeling that they should be something else."

— From a 2014 interview with The Huffington Post

15. On why even the bleakest post-apocalyptic novels are, deep down, full of hope

“Any novel is hopeful in that it presupposes a reader. It is, actually, a hopeful act just to write anything, really, because you’re assuming that someone will be around to [read] it.”

— From a 2011 interview with The Atlantic 

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China's New Tianjin Binhai Library is Breathtaking—and Full of Fake Books
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A massive new library in Tianjin, China, is gaining international fame among bibliophiles and design buffs alike. As Arch Daily reports, the five-story Tianjin Binhai Library has capacity for more than 1 million books, which visitors can read in a spiraling, modernist auditorium with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

Several years ago, municipal officials in Tianjin commissioned a team of Dutch and Japanese architects to design five new buildings, including the library, for a cultural center in the city’s Binhai district. A glass-covered public corridor connects these structures, but the Tianjin Binhai Library is still striking enough to stand out on its own.

The library’s main atrium could be compared to that of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum in New York City. But there's a catch: Its swirling bookshelves don’t actually hold thousands of books. Look closer, and you’ll notice that the shelves are printed with digital book images. About 200,000 real books are available in other rooms of the library, but the jaw-dropping main room is primarily intended for socialization and reading, according to Mashable.

The “shelves”—some of which can also serve as steps or seating—ascend upward, curving around a giant mirrored sphere. Together, these elements resemble a giant eye, prompting visitors to nickname the attraction “The Eye of Binhai,” reports Newsweek. In addition to its dramatic main auditorium, the 36,000-square-foot library also contains reading rooms, lounge areas, offices, and meeting spaces, and has two rooftop patios.

Following a three-year construction period, the Tianjin Binhai Library opened on October 1, 2017. Want to visit, but can’t afford a trip to China? Take a virtual tour by checking out the photos below.

A general view of the Tianjin Binhai Library
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People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A woman taking pictures at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A man visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A woman looking at books at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

[h/t Newsweek]

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