On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Non-Fiction by William Zinsser (2012, 30th Anniversary Edition) is one of the best and most practical books on the subject of writing. I revisit it every few years, along with Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. Both are great, but of the two, Zinsser’s book is the more enjoyable read.
The most useful content in On Writing Well is found in the book’s first two parts. Part 1 establishes the core writing principles: why a writer writes, who they write for and why clarity is so essential to good writing. Part 2 describes some of the techniques and methods of good writing. Zinsser navigates the balance between theory and practice by providing many examples from books and magazine articles. Of particular interest are the examples of rewritten or edited passages which illustrate the importance of editing.
I strongly recommend Zinsser’s book for anyone who wants to improve their writing. Despite being targeted at non-fiction writers, much of the advice applies to fiction writing as well. This is a book I know I’ll return to throughout my life. It's the very definition of a “classic.”
Pros: One of the definitive books about writing. The first half of the book is dense with insightful ideas and practical advice.
Cons: The second half of the book, while still useful, meanders at times. Part 3 can be skipped or selectively read.
Verdict: A classic. I learn something every time I reread it. 10/10
Notes & Highlights
Part 1: Principles
Chapter 1: The Transaction
- “There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of methods, and any method that helps you to say what you want to say is the right method for you.”
- “Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is. I often find myself reading with interest about a topic I never thought would interest me—some scientific quest, perhaps. What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field. How was he drawn into it? What emotional baggage did he bring along? How did it change his life?”
- “This is the personal transaction that’s at the heart of good nonfiction writing. Out of it come two of the most important qualities that this book will go in search of: humanity and warmth.”
Chapter 2: Simplicity
- “Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”
- “The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”
- “Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.”
- “It won’t do to say that the reader is too dumb or too lazy to keep pace with the train of thought. If the reader is lost, it’s usually because the writer hasn’t been careful enough.”
- Constantly ask yourself: “What am I trying to say?” Then look at what you have written and ask if you have said it.
- “Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”
Chapter 3: Clutter
Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful?”
- Example: “At this point of time” vs. “now.”
- Unnecessary prepositions: “Head up committees” vs. “head committees.”
- Unnecessary adjectives: “A personal friend of mine” vs. “a friend of mine.”
- Verbose substitutes: “currently” and “at the present time” vs. “now.”
- Weak verb substitutes: “Are you experiencing any pain?” vs. “Does it hurt?”
- Ponderous euphemism (sometimes politically correct language): “Minimally exceptional” vs. “ordinary.”
- Corporate-speak: “Impacted with the ground prematurely” vs. “crashed.”
- “Beware, then, of the long word that’s no better than the short word: “assistance” (help), “numerous” (many), “facilitate” (ease), “individual” (man or woman), “remainder” (ret), “initial” (first), “implement” (do), “sufficient” (enough), “attempt” (try), “referred to as” (called) and hundreds more.”
- “Beware all of the slippery new fad words: paradigm and parameter, prioritize and potentialize…Don’t dialogue with someone you can talk too. Don’t interface with anybody.”
- Word clusters to introduce explanations: “I might add,” “it should be pointed out,” “it is interesting to note.”
- Word clusters that inflate simpler alternatives: “With the possible exception of” (except), “due to the fact that” (because), “he totally lacked the ability to” (he couldn’t), “until such time as” (until), “for the purpose of” (for).
- Redundant adverbs: “smile happily.”
- Redundant adjective: “tall skyscraper.”
- Weak qualifiers: “a bit,” “sort of,” “in a sense.”
Chapter 4: Style
- “You have to strip your writing down before you can build it back up. You must know what the essential tools are and what job they were designed to do. Extending the metaphor of carpentry, it’s first necessary to be able to saw wood neatly and to drive nails. Later you can bevel the edges or add elegant finials, if that’s your taste. But you can forget that you are practicing a craft that’s based on certain principles.”
- Zinsser’s pushback against complaints about “eliminating everything” is that you must first master the basics. Once basics are under control, you can introduce stylistic elements if necessary.
- “First, then, learn to hammer the nails, and if what you build is sturdy and serviceable, take satisfaction in its plain strength.”
- “You will be impatient to find a ‘style’—to embellish the plain words so that readers will recognize you as someone special.”
- “The reader will notice if you are putting on airs. Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine.”
- “It’s amazing how often an editor can throw away the first three or four paragraphs of an article, or even the first few pages, and start with the paragraph where the writer begins to sound like himself…”
- “Writers are obviously at their most natural when they write in the first person. Writing is an intimate transaction between two people...therefore I urge people to write in the first person…”
- “Good writers are visible just behind their words. If you aren’t allowed to use ‘I,’ at least think ‘I’ while you write…”
Chapter 5: The Audience
- “Soon after you confront the matter of preserving your identity, another question will occur to you: ‘Who am I writing for?’…You are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience.”
- In case Zinsser’s advice above seem contradictory to earlier statements about not boring your reader, Zinsser justifies his point. Not boring your reader is about craft. Writing for yourself is a matter of attitude and using your skill to express your personality.
- “Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation.”
- “Menken was never timid or evasive; he didn’t kowtow to the reader or curry anyone’s favor. It takes courage to be such a writer, but it is out of such courage that revered and influential journalists are born.”
Chapter 6: Words
- “There is a kind of writing that might be called journalese, and it’s the death of freshness in anybody’s style…a mixture of cheap words, made-up words and clichés that have become so pervasive…”
- Example: Adjectives used as nouns like “greats” and “notables.”
- Nouns used as verbs: “to host.”
- Nouns chopped off to form verbs: “enthuse”, “emote.”
- Nouns padded to form verbs: “beef up,” “put teeth into.”
- “Dreary phrases constitute writing at its most banal. We know just what to expect. No surprise awaits us in the form of an unusual word, an oblique look. We are in the hands of a hack, and we know it right away. We stop reading.”
- “Notice the decisions that other writers making in their choice of words and be finicky about the ones you select from the vast supply. The race in writing is not to the swift but to the original.”
- “Writing is learned by imitation…I learned by reading the men and women who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it.”
- “Get in the habit of using dictionaries.”
- Zinsser recommends reading E.B. White’s “The Elements of Style” once a year.
- “If all your sentences move at the same plodding gait, which even you recognize as deadly but don’t know how to cure, read them aloud.”
Chapter 7: Usage
- “The laws of usage are relative, bending with the taste of the lawmaker.”
- “The spoken language is looser than the written language.”
- “One helpful approach is to try to separate usage from jargon.”
- “Good usage, to me, consists of using good words if they already exist—as they almost always do—to express myself clearly and simply to someone else.”
Part 2: Methods
Chapter 8: Unity
- “The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.”
- “All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem. It may be a problem of where to obtain the facts or how to organize the material. It may be a problem of approach or attitude, tone or style.”
- “Unity is the anchor of good writing. So, first get your unities straight…therefore choose from among the many variables and stick to your choice.”
- “One choice is unity of pronoun. Are you going to write in the first person, as a participant, or in the third person, as an observer?”
- “Unity of tense is another choice. Most people write mainly in the past tense, but some people write agreeable in the present. What is not agreeable is to switch back and forth…you must choose the tense in which you are principally going to address the reader, no matter how many glances you may take backward or forward along the way.”
- “Another choice is unity of mood.” Casual? Formal? Serious?
- “What one point do I want to make?…Every writing project must be reduced before you start to write.”
- “Every piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before. Not two thoughts, or five—just one.”
- “Trust your material if it’s taking you into terrain you didn’t intend to enter but where the vibrations are good. Adjust your style accordingly and proceed to whatever destination you reach. Don’t become the prisoner of a preconceived plan. Writing is no respecter of blueprints.”
Chapter 9: The Lead and the Ending
- “The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the ‘lead.’”
- There’s no easy answer to how long a lead should be (and it may differ by genre/subject). However the gist is always the same: capture that reader immediately.
- The lead must do some real work. It must provide hard details that tell the reader why the piece was written and why he ought to read it…coax the reader a little more; keep him inquisitive.”
- “Every paragraph should amplify the one that preceded it.”
- “Take special care with a the last sentence of each paragraph—it’s the crucial springboard to the next paragraph.”
- Example of an effective lead: “I’ve often wondered what goes into a hot dog. Now I know and I wish I didn’t. My trouble began when the Department of Agriculture published the hot dog’s ingredients…”
- “You should always collect more material than you will use. Every article is strong in proportion to the surplus of details from which you can choose the few that will serve you best.”
- “Look for your material everywhere, not just by reading the obvious sources and interviewing the obvious people…our daily landscape is thick with absurd messages and portents. Notice them. They not only have social significance; they are often just quirky enough to make a lead that’s different from everybody else’s.
- Overused lead: The future archaeologist. E.g. “When some future archaeologist stumbles on the remains of our civilization, what will he make of the jukebox?” (Similar to the visitor from Mars lead).
- Overused lead: The have-in-common lead. E.g. “What did Stalin, MacArthur, Wittgenstein and Kurosawa have in common? They all loved Westerns.”
- Opening with a story is a simple but powerful solution. Don’t underestimate the power of narrative to hold someone’s attention.
- “Knowing when to end an article is far more important that most writers realize. You should give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did to your first.”
- “The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right. They didn’t expect the article to end so soon, or so abruptly, or to say what it said.”
- “Surprise is the most refreshing element in nonfiction writing. If something surprises you it will also surprise—and delight—the people you are writing for.”
Chapter 10: Bits & Pieces
- “Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb.” E.g. “Joe saw him.” (strong) vs. “He was seen by Joe.” (weak)
- “Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum.” E.g. The president of the company stepped down (weak). Alternative verbs: resigned, retired, was fired. Use verbs to create more specificity and clarity.
- If you select the right verb, adverbs will add unnecessary clutter and redundancy. Example: “The radio blared loudly.” (Blared already means loud)
- “Most adjectives are also unnecessary. Like adverbs, they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don’t stop to think that the concept is already in the noun.” Example: yellow daffodils and brownish dirt. If the dirt is unusual, then use an adjective. E.g. “red dirt”
- “Most writers sow adjectives almost unconsciously into the soil of their prose to make it more lush and pretty…the adjective that exists solely as a decoration is a self-indulgence for the writer and burden for the reader.”
- Adjectives will have power when you use them sparsely to bring attention to the important elements of your writing that require the added descriptive details.
- “Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw: a bit, a little, sort of, kind off, rather, quite, very, too, pretty much, in a sense, and dozens more…the large point is one of authority. Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of the reader’s trust. Readers want a writer who believes in himself and what he is saying.”
- “Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.” (Great example of pruning qualifiers)
- “There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.”
- The dash is used in two ways: 1) to amplify the second part of the sentence with a thought stated in the first part and 2) as a parenthetical thought in a longer sentence.
- “Nouns that express a concept are commonly used in bad writing instead of verbs that tell what somebody did.” Example: ‘The common reaction is incredulous laughter.’ To fix, reintroduce a person/people. Example: ‘Most people just laugh with disbelief.’
- “Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it. Unfortunately, this solution is usually the last one that occurs to writers…”
- “Paragraphing is a subtle but important element in writing…constantly telling your reader how you have organized your ideas.”
- “Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost…clear writing is the result of a lot of tinkering.”
- Don’t spell everything out for the reader. Let the reader marvel at interesting facts and connections themselves. “The reader plays a major role in the act of writing and must be given room to play it.”
Part 3: Forms
Chapters 11-17: A survey of non-fiction forms (Interview, Travel Writing, Memoirs, etc.)
- “If nonfiction is where you do your best writing…don’t be buffaloed into the idea that it’s an inferior species. The only important distinction is between good writing and bad writing. Good writing is good writing, whatever form it takes and whatever we call it.”
Part 4: Attitudes
Chapter 20: The Sound of Your Voice
- “Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page, a voice that’s enjoyable not only in its musical line but in its avoidance of sounds that would cheapen its tone: breeziness and condescension and clichés.”
- “For writers and other creative artists, knowing what not to do is a major component of taste. Two jazz pianists may be equally proficient. The one with taste will put every note to useful work in telling his or her story; the one without taste will drench us in ripples and other unnecessary ornaments.”
- Avoid clichés: Clichés will rob your writing of freshness and surprise. If you have the choice between novel and banal, choose the former.
- “Never hesitate to imitate another writer. Imitation is part of the creative process…find the best writers in the fields that interest you and read their work aloud.”
Chapter 21: Enjoyment, Fear and Confidence
- “A sense of enjoyment is a priceless attribute for a writer.”
- “Writers have to jump-start themselves at the moment of performance, no less than actors and dancers and painters and musicians…you have to turn on the switch. Nobody is going to do it for you.”
- The writer must overcome fear: “Fear of writing gets planted in most Americans at an early age, usually at school, and it never entirely goes away.”
- Non-fiction writers are accountable to facts, unlike fiction writers.
- “I’ve used writing to give myself an interesting life and a continuing education.”
- “If you want your writing to convey enjoyment, write about people you respect. Writing to destroy and to scandalize can be as destructive to the writer as it is to the subject.”
Chapter 22: They Tyranny of the Final Product
- Allow sufficient time for the journey. Zinsser emphasizes the process and the journey over the final product.
- “The quest is one of the oldest themes in storytelling, an act of faith we never get tired of hearing about.”
- “Intention is what we wish to accomplish with our writing. Call it the writer’s soul. We can write to affirm and to celebrate, or we can write to debunk and to destroy; the choice is ours.”
Chapter 23: A Writer’s Decisions
- “Your clear and pleasing sentences will fall apart if you don’t keep remembering that writing is linear and sequential, that logic is the glue that holds it together, that tension must be maintained from one sentence to the next, and that narrative—good old-fashioned storytelling—is what should pull your readers along without noticing the tug. The only thing they should notice is that you have made a sensible plan for your journey. Every step should seem inevitable.”
- In individual sentence should contain a single thought.
- Many writers try to jam too much information into a single sentence.
- “Never be afraid to break a long sentence into two short ones, or even three.”
- Show care in your word choice: “Banality is the enemy of good writing; the challenge is to not write like everybody else.”
- “Decide what you want to do. Then decide to do it. Then do it.”
Chapter 24: Writing Family History and Memoir
- “There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published. Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is to come to terms with your life narrative. Another is to work through some of life’s hardest knocks—loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace.”
Chapter 25: Write as Well as You Can
- “When I tell aspiring writers that they should think of themselves as part entertainer, they don’t like to hear it…you must find some way to elevate your act of writing into an entertainment. Usually this means giving the reader an enjoyable surprise.”
- “When we say we like the style of certain writers, what we mean is that we like their personality as they express it on paper.”
- “If you would like to write better than everybody else, you have to want to write better than everybody else. You must take an obsessive pride in the smallest details of your craft.”
- Writing well means believing in your writing and believing in yourself, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel. You write only as well as you make yourself write.”