On Writing Well by William Zinsser

About On Writing Well

William Zinsser’s book on nonfiction writing gives readers a window into the life of a full time professional writer.

In On Writing Well, Zinsser discusses nonfiction writing in its various forms: memoir-writing, sportswriting, arts writing, and more, and discusses the foundational skills top nonfiction writers (all writers, really) must develop.

Some of his top tips include: Clear thinking leads to clear writing, humorous writing comes from exaggerating ludicrous truths, your first sentence is your most important sentence, etc.

This book has been revised and republished 7 times and has been around as a classic for over 40 years. If you want to learn from the wisdom of a writer who has been a professional in the business, definitely give On Writing Well a shot!


INTRODUCTION

Zinsser first wrote this book in 1975 as a summary of his nonfiction writing course at Yale. He hoped to address the gaps left by Strunk & White’s Elements of Style (a book of “pointers and admonitions”)

Since then, the book has been revised 6x to keep up with new social and literary trends, technolgoies, etc. This is the 7th edition (2006).

PART I: PRINCIPLES

Chapter 1 The Transaction

Zinsser once spoke to a class about writing alongside a surgeon who did writing on the side. Whereas Zinsser found writing to be hard work, the surgeon viewed it as a hobby, and their answers to the kids’ questions differend greatly.

For there isn’t any “right” way to do such personal work.

Good writing has an alivenenss that keeps the reader reading…it’s not a question of gimmicks…It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.

Humanity and warmth is key.

Can such principles be taught? Maybe not. But most of them can be learned.

Chapter 2 Simplicity

Clutter is the disease of American writing…but 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’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English.

Remember the reader has an attention span of 30 seconds.

If the reader is lost, it’s usually because the writer hasn’t been careful enough.

Writers must constantly ask: what I am trying to say? Surprisingly often they don’t know. Then they musst look at what they have written and ask: Have I said it?

Whatever you write must be clear to someone seeing it for the first time.

Good writing doesn’t come naturally, though most people seem to think it does…Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident…Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it IS hard.

Chapter 3 Clutter

Clutter is like weeds, it keeps sprouting overnight.

Ex: prepositions added to verbs that don’t need help (Eg: “face up to problems”), word clusters, or useless additive words like “personal feeling.”

Small details ARE worth bothering about.

George Orwell noted in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” that clutter is official language used to hide behind.

Chapter 4 Style

You have to strip your writing down before you can build it back up.

Nobody becomes Tom Wolfe overnight, not even Tom Wolfe.

Writers who try to decorate their prose lose whatever it is that makes you unique. Readers can tell you’re putting on airs.

Writers are at their most natural when they write in the first person.

We have become a society fearrful of revealing who we are.

Style is tied to the psyche, and writing has deep psychological roots.

The reason for writer’s block is partly in the subconscious mind. Another reason for avoiding “I” is that writers are unwilling to “go out on a limb,” to stand up for and tell readers what they believe. This doesn’t inspire confidence.

Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.

Chapter 5 The Audience

Fundamental question: Who am I writing for?

Fundamental answerr: yourself.

Don’t visualize a mass audience. Every reader is different.

Editors and readers don’t know what they want to read until they read it. Besides, they’re always looking for something new.

You write mostly to please yourself, so if you go with it, you’ll entertain readers who are worth writing for.

Make sure you hone your skills, butt beyond that, don’t worry if a reader likes you or not. You are who you are and either you’ll get along or not.

Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation.

Chapter 6 Words

Avoid jouurnalese: pervasivecheap, made-up words and cliches.

You’ll never make your mark as a writer unless you develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive.

Instead, surprise the reader with an unusual word, oblique look.

Make a habit of reading what is being written today and what was written by earlier masters. Writing is learned by imitation.

Also notice how words SOUND. Readers read with their eyes, but they hear more tha you realize. Rhythm and alliteration are vital to every sentence.

Consider pacing. Sentences shouldn’t all move at “the same plodding gait,” but have some variety through altering their lengths.

Chapter 7 Usage

Usage has no fixed boundaries. It changes constantly. Which words are legit and which are weird constructions? It depends.

PART II: METHODS

Chapter 8 Unity

You learn to write by writing.

You must “force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.”

All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem.

Unity is the “anchor of good writing.” Starting with pronouns: are you writing in first or third person? Then unity of tense (most people stick with past, but present is okay asa long as you don’t switch around)

Then there’s unity of mood (casual or formal? Stick with one)

Ask yourself:

  • How much do I want to cover? (There is no definitive last word. “Every writing project must be reduced before you start to write. Therefore think small.” Because “unwieldy writing task[s are] a drain on your enthusiasm,” which is what keeps you going)
  • What one point do I want to make? What point do you want to leave in your reader’s mind?

Often, writing generates thoughts you didn’t anticipate. If that happens, trust your material if it feels right.

Chapter 9 The Lead and the Ending

The most important sentene in your article is the first one. It must lead readers to your second. It must tell readers why a piece was written and why they should read it.

Try giving a twist of surprise or humor. Sometimes “salvation…lies…in some odd fact [the writerr] was able to discover.”

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”

Also, look for material everywhere, starting with the obvious sources and people and moving past, reaing theh fillers and obscure crannies of written material.

Another approach: tell a story.

Narrative is the most compelling method of holding someone’s attention; everybody wannts to be told a story. Always look for ways to convey your information in narrative form.

Knowing when to end an article is more important than many people realize.

The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right.

For nonfiction writers, when you’re ready to stop, stop. Find the nearest exit, take a couple sesntences to wrap things up.

Or bring a story full circle, ending with symmetry. A quote often works too. Something that surprises and delights people and sends the on their way.

Chapter 10 Bits & Pieces

This chapter contains “scraps and morsels”

  • Verbs: Use active verbs unless you can’t avoid a passive one. “Verbs are the most important of all your tools.” They give a sentence momentum.
  • Adverbs: Most are unnecessary clutter.
  • Adjectives: Most are also unnencessary. Get rid of adjective-by-habit (Eg: “gnarled oaks”)
  • Little qualifiers: Excise “a bit, a little, sort of, very, etc.” They dilute your style and persuasiveness.
  • Punctuation: Use shorter sentences Use (!) only when needed for effect. Use (;) with discretion.
  • Mood changers: Starting a sentence witih “but” is a way to prime readers for change in mood. It announces “total contrast with what’s gone before.”
  • That vs which: Use “that” unless it makes your meaning ambiguous.
  • Concept nouns: Are used in bad writing instead of verbs telling what someone did. Readers can’t picture someone doing something. (Eg: “the common reaction is incredulous laughter” = “most people laugh with disbelief”)
  • Don’t overdo overstatementns. It gets tiresome and takes away credibility.
  • Writing is not a contest.
  • The quickest fix: solve problems in sentences by getting rid of them.
  • Paragraphs: keep them short.
  • Rewriting is the essence of writing well. It’s hard to accept because we all have “emotional equity in our first draft.” Rewriting = reshapinng, tightening, refining.

The longer I work at the craft of writing, the more I realize that there’s nothing more interesting than the truth.

PART III: FORMS

Chapter 11 Nonfiction as Literature

After WWII, reading trends went from fiction tot nonfiction. Today all domains are open to ordinary readers by nonfiction writers.

People like to write about what they know, observe, or can find out.

Chapter 12 Writing About People: The Interview

Nothing so animates writing as someone telling what he thinks or what he does — in his own words.

Look for te human element in every story, and your writing won’t be drab. A story about other surface things can really be a story about PEOPLE.

Zinsser interviewed a Book of the Month Club in 1966 and the club judges mentioned that while Gone With the Wind wasn’t very authentic/convincing, it had “the quality [of] attention: it made you want to turn over the page to see what happens next.”

Interviews are one of the most powerful nonfiction forms, so start to master it early. Choose someone with an important, unusual, interesting job.

Always prepare before an interview: know the person’s history, have a list of likely questions.

Don’t rely on audiorecorders: bring a notepad and paper for takinig notes.

Writing is a public trust. Don’t fabricate quotes or surmise what someone might have said in nonfiction.

Chapter 13 Writing About Places: The Travel Article

People and places are the twin pillars on which most nonfiction is built. Every human event happens somewhere, and the reader wants to know what that somewhere was like.

But “mere agglomeration of detail” won’t interest readers. Detail must be SIGNIFICANT. Also, too many writers use excessive descriptors in describing places. How do you avoid this?

Choose words with “unusual care.” If a phrase comes up easily, be suspicious of it. It’s probably a cliche.

Be selective — eliminate every fact that is a common attribute eg “shore scattered with rocks” (many shores are scattered with rocks). Choose significant, important, unusual, colorful, entertaining details instead.

Your job is to find the central idea of the place you’re writing about.

Also, what brings a place alive is human activity — what people do that give a locale color.

It’s not your place until YOU write about it.

Chapter 14 Writing About Yourseslf: The Memoir

If you write for yourself, you’ll reach the people you want to write FOR.

You have permission to write about yourself. Still, excessive writing about self can be hazardous.

Rule of thumb: make sure every component in your memoir does useful work. You must be the editor of your own life.

Memoir is the art of inventing the truth.

One secret of memoir writing is detail (sounds, smells, song titles, whatever shaped a part of your life.)

The crucial ingredient of memoir is the people who crossed your life.

Chapter 15 Science and Technology

Writing about science requires sentences in linear sequence. No fancy leaps or implied truths. Fact and deductionns rule.

Remember: the reader knows nothing. Don’t assume they know anything you know. Science writing is an upside down pyramid: start with a fact readers must know, follow with a sentence that broadens the first, etc. moving from fact to significance and speculation.

You can be a human element, using your experience to connect readers to the mechanism you write about.

Alternatively, write a scientific wtory about someone else. A detective story about illness, etc.

Another way to help readers get the unfamiliar is to relate them to things they ARE familiar with.

Write like a person, not a scientist.

Chapter 16 Business Writing: Writing in Your Job

Bad writing turns off customers.

But plain writing isn’t easily achieved because there’s “too much vanity on the line.” Executives want to sound important.

Remember that what you write is often the only chance you’ll get to presesnt yourself to someone.

The way to warm up any intitution is to locate the missing “I,” …the most interesting element in any story.

Chapter 17 Sports

Red Smith was king of his field after 50 years of writing because he cared about usingn fresh imagery in journalistic form while competitors settled for the “same old stuff.”

Some sportswriters also get addicted to numbers.

Look for the human bond. Athletes are people too. Honest portraiture is interesting.

A lot of modern athlete ego has rubbed off on sportswriters too, who think their thoughts are more important than the game.

One job of sportswriters is to help readers feel what it’s like to be a top athlete. Ability to connect sports with social history is a plus.

Sportswriting values: people and places, time and transition.

Chapter 18 Writing About the Arts: Critics and Columnists

Criticism is where writers strut their stuff, and create reputationns of wit. But it’s not an “easy route to glory,” and it’s not as powerful as you think.

  • Reviewers write for a paper/magazine and cover an industry. They report, they don’t make aesthetic judgments.
  • Criticism: serious intellectual act, attempts to evaluate serious works of art and compare with what’s been done before in the medium or by the artist.

Take a stand, don’t be wishy-washy.

Chapter 19 Humor

Humor is the nonfiction writer’s secret weapon, their best tool for making a poinnt.

Serious humorists heighten a crazy truth to a level it will be seen as crazy.

Humor makes it so that people can’t look at something bizarre in our daily environment previously taken for granted the same way again.

Most humor, however freakish, is based on fundamental truths. It’s a special perspective.

How to learn to write humor:

  • Master good “straight” English first.
  • Look for what’s funny in what you know to be true.
  • Don’t strain for laughs. Humor is built on surprise, and you can surprise people only so often.

When writers’ minds free-associate, they can ricochet from nonrmal to absurd, an unexpected angle.

Serious humor: Humorists can get at serious subjects and even bring down corrupt “hypocrites in high places” through their writings and comics. They can say things that traditional columnists/writers can’t get away with.

Humor also helps us look at older problems of the heart, home, family, job, daily life. (Eg: the comic Blondie is durable because it’s simple, based on daily life: sleeping, eating, raising a family, and making money)

Humor is based on fundamental truths.

Humorists Zinsser mentions include: Woody Allen, Bill Mauldin, Walt Kelly, Thomas Nast, Mort Sahl, Art Buchwald, Garry Trudeau, Chic Young, Mark Twain, Russell Baker, George Ade, SJ Perelman, Ring Lardner, Don Marquis, Donald Ogden Stewart, Robert Benchley, Frank Sullivan, Ian Frazier, Garrison Keillor, Fran Lebowitz, Nora Ephron, Calvin Trillin, Mark Singer, St Clair McKelway, Robert Lewis Taylor, Lillian Ross, Wolcott Gibbs, Stephen Leacock.

But humor doesn’t always have to make a point. Pure nonsense can be a joy.

Enjoyment is what humorists must convey — that they’re having a great time!

A humorist who deals witht everyday life never runs out of material (Erma Bombeck proved)

Truth and humor are intertwined.

PART IV: ATTITUDES

Chapter 20 The Sound of Your Voice

your commodity as a writer, whatever you’re writing about, is you. Don’t alter your voice to fit the subject but develop a voice readers will recognize when they hear it.

There is a kind of writing that sounds so relaxed that you think you hear the author talking to you.

But this doesn’t mean you write in a breezy style.

Finding a voice readers enjoy is a matter of taste, which is often an intangible quality. But there are “core verities” in every art form that survive “the fickleness of time.”

Writing doesn’t have many of these guideposts. But we do know what to omit: like cliches. And we know to choose words that have surprise, strength, and precision.

The trick is to study writers who have taste.

Never hesitate to imitate another writer. Imitation is part of the creative process for anyone learning an art or a craft.

Find the best writers in your field, read their work aloud, get their voice and taste into your ear.

On to eloquence: it moves us with what’s left unsaid, touches off echoes in what we already know from reading, religion, heritage. Lincoln’s speeches, for example, echoed with the KJV Bible which he knew by heart.

Remember theh uses of the past when you tell your story. What moves us in writing has regional, ethnic roots, and “the sound of voices far older than the narrator’s, talking in cadences that are more than ordinarily rich.”

Go with what seems inevitable in your own heritage. Embrace it and it may lead you to eloquence.

Chapter 21 Enjoyment, Fear and Confidence

Zinsser’s credo as a writer is to “give everybody a good time.” Writing can be lonely, so he tries to keep himself cheered up.

SJ Perelman: The reader has to feel that the writer is feeling good…Even if he isn’t.

Writer 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.

Fear is also at work. Nonfiction writers fear not being able to do their assignment. They’re accountable to the facts, their interviewees, the craft, etc. They fear disapproval and failure.

How do you fight fear?

Write about what interests you, what you care about. Stay interested — that’s the point of being a writer.

Zinssser: I’ve used writing to give myself an interesting life and a continuing education…learning is a tonic.

Remember your assignment may not be as narrow as you think. Think broadly about it.

Feel a rapport with the person you are writing about. Zinsser tells of how he was supposed to write an article about birds, but he wasn’t interested until he met Roger Tory Peterson, a man who painted and photographed birds at age 84, and became interested in writitng the profile of this ornithologist.

If, as a writer, you say or think “that’s interesting,” pay attention and follow your nose. Trust your curiosity to connect with readers’ curiosity.

Chapter 22 The Tyranny of the Final Product

Theh American culture worships the winning result. But there are less glamorous gains to be made along the way (learning, wisdom, confidence, growth, dealing with failure) which aren’t respected because they can’t be graded.

The most untaught/underestimated skill in nonfiction writing is how to organize a long article.

The biggest problem is compression: how to distill a coherent narrative from experiences, feelings, memories.

Find some connection between you and the thing you want to write about.

Zinsser told his students to verbally share WHAT they wanted to write about, WHY, and HOW they planned to write it…without writing it yet.

  • Quest: one of the oldest themes in storytelling that we never get tired of hearing. When you tell a story in the form of a quest/pilgrimage, you’re ahead of the game.
  • Intention: What we want to accomplish with our writing. We write to affirm/celebrate or debunk/destroy.

Writing is related to character. If your values are sound, your writing wil be sound. It all begins with intention. Figure out what you want to do and how you want to do it, and work your way with humanity and integrity to the completed article. THEN you’ll have something to sell.

Chapter 23 A Writer’s Decisions

This chapter is about the hundreds of little decisions that go into organiing a long article.

The hardest decision is how to begin it. The info in the lead must keep readers so interested they’ll stay for the whole trip. Don’t be afraid to break a long sentnece up, don’t make a sentence try to do too much work.

The opening paragraph also establishes the writer’s personality and voice.

Always ask yourself after every sentence: “What does my reader want to know next?”

Banality is the enemy of good writing; the challenge is to not write like everybody else.

Also ask yourself: “What is this piece REALLY about?” Not just “what is this piece about?” It’s not just about “fondness for the material you’ve gone to a lot of trouble to gather.”

Readers should always feel you know more about your subject than you’ve put in writing.

Used in moderation, making yourself gullible or a bit stupid gives readers theh pleasure of feeling superior.

Break a lonng complex article into little manageable chunks and take one at a time. Use transition lines like “So much for X, now we’re getting to the real business of Y…”

Carefully choose words readers mightnot be expecting. And don’t over-embellish your article with things like exclamation points. Let the material speak for itsef.

A crucial decision about writing is where to end it. Sometimes the story will tell you where it wants to stop.

Final note: If a subject interests you, go after it. It won’t come looking for you.

Decide what you want to do. Then decide to do it. Then do it.

Chapter 24 Writing Family History and Memoir

Writers are custodians of memory.

It’s sad when people ask “I wish I’d asked my mother/father about that.” So it’s important to have some kind of record of your life and the family you were born into.

Memories too often die with their owner, and time too often surprises us by running out.

Zinsser’s father wrote 2 family histories in his old age. Then he had them typed and bound and gave a personally inscribed copy to each of his daughters, their husbands, to Zinsser and his wife, and his 15 grandchildren.

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…and to find understanding and solace.

When you write your own family history, don’t try to be a “writer.” Just “be yourself and your readers will follow you anywhere.”

You can write the memoir from the perspective of your younger self, or of your older, wiser self, looking back.

When you write your family hiistory, be a recording angel and record everything your descendants might want to know.

Don’t worry about problems like the privacy of the people y ou write about in advance. Frst get the story down as you remember it without looking over your shoulder. Say what you want to say freely and honestly, THEN take up the privacy issue.

If you plan to publicly publish your work, you may want to have the courtesy of showing y our relatives the pages in which they’re mentioned.

Remember it’s YOUR story. YOU did the work. If your relatives have a problem with it, they can write their own. No one has a monopoly on the shared past.

On some deep level, most families want to have a record left of their effort to be a family, however flawed that effort was, and they will…thank you…If you do it honestly and not for the wrong reasons.

What are the wrong reasons?

The 1990s was a memoir-crazed time. Until then, writers hid their shame. Then talk shows started and shame went out the window, and there was an avalance of “therapy memoirs” where writers wallowed in self-revelation, self-pity, and other-bashing.

But people don’t connect with whining. Get rid of your anger elsewhere. Memoirs we remember are ones written with love and forgiveness. (Liar’s Club, Angela’s Ashes, This Boy’s Life, A Drinking Life). For these writers,

writing a memoir can become an act of healing.

Now how to organize the thing? You must make a “series of reducing decisisons.”

Ex: write about onebranch of the family.

You are the protagonist in your memoir. Find a narrative trajectory for the story you want to tell and don’t relinquish control.

Think small. Don’t rummage into the past to find “important episodes.” Look for small self-contained incidents still vivid in your memory. If you remember them, it’s because they cotain universal truths your readers will recognize from their own life.

Your biggest stoires will often have less to do with their subject than with their significance — not what you DID in a certain situation, but how that situation affected you and shaped the person you became.

How to put your memoir together: “Think small. Tackle your life in manageable chunks. Don’t visualize the finished project.”

Suggestion: On Monday, write about some event vivid in your memory for 3–5 pages. Repeat on Tuesday. And so on and so forth until you have done this for 2–6 months. Then take all your entries out and spread them on the floor. Read them through and see what they tell about you and what patterns emerge. Then put the pieces together.

Chapter 25 Write as Well as You Can

Zinsser was the youngest only son of a businessman. He wasn’t meant to be a writer, but he decided to be one who wrote “as well as possible” and “as entertaingly as possible.”

His advice: think of yourself as part entertainer. Your piece has to jump out by being more fun than everyone else’s. Usually this involves giving readers an enjoyable surprise (humor, anecdote, paradox, unexpected quotation, powerful fact, outlandish detail, arrangement of words, etc. This is your “style.”

Unlike…other sciences, writing has no new discoveries to spring on us.

There is no new way of writing a clear English sentence. We all know verbs are more “vigorous” than nounse, active > passive voice, short sentences read better than long ones, concrete details are easier to process than abstractions.

Of course, rules can be bent. But doing it skillfully is rare.

So the edge of writing involves mastering the tools in this book, maybe a natural musical ear, sense of rhythm, and feel for words, but finally:

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. And you must be willing to defend what you’ve written against teh various middlemen — editors, agents, and publishers — whoses sights may be different from yours, whose standards not as high.

Editors: Good ones bring an objective eye that writers shave lost. An editor’s hand must be invisible, their contributions must sound like the writer’s words. Bad editors over-tinker.

Joe DiMaggio was once asked how he played so well so consistently. He said:

I always thought that there was at least one person in the stands who had never seen me play, and I didn’t want to let him down.

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