Book:  On Writing Well

Author:  William Zinsser

Purchase:  Print | eBook 

Citation:  Zinsser, W. (2006). On writing well : the classic guide to writing nonfiction. New York: HarperCollins.

Three Big Takeaways:

  • When the word processor arrived, two things happened. Good writers got better and bad writers got worse. Good writers welcomed the gift of being able to fuss endlessly with their sentences without the drudgery of retyping. Bad writers became even more verbose because writing was suddenly so easy and their sentences looked so pretty on the screen. Email is an impromptu medium, not conducive to slowing down or looking back. It's ideal for the never-ending upkeep of daily life. If the writing is disorderly, no real harm is done. But email is also where much of the world's business is not conducted. Millions of email messages every day give people the information they need to do their job, and a badly written message can do a lot of damage. So can a badly written website. The new age, for all its electronic wizardry, is still writing-based. (pg. xii)

  • Most adverbs are unnecessary. You will clutter your sentence and annoy the reader if you choose a verb that has a specific meaning and then add an adverb that carries the same meaning. Don't tell us that the radio blared loudly. Don't write that someone clenched his teeth tightly; there's no other way to clench teeth. Again and again in carless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs. Also, prune out small "qualifiers" such as "a bit," "a little," "sort of," "rather," "too." They dilute your style and your persuasiveness. Don't say you were a bit confused and sort of tired. Be confused. Be tired. Good writing is lean and confident. 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. (pg. 68)

  • Your subconscious mind does more writing than you think. Often you'll send the whole day wrestling with a passage. Frequently a solution will occur to you the next morning when you plunge back in. While you slept, your writer's mind didn't. A writer is always working. Stay alert to the currents around you. Much of what you see and hear will come back, having percolated through your subconscious mind, just when your conscious mind needs it. (pg. 78)

Other Key Ideas

  • Writers must constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they don't know. Then they must look at what they have written and ask: have I said it? Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come our right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in a moment of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it's because it is hard. (pg. 9)

  • Is there any way to recognize clutter at a glance? Here's one device - I would put brackets around every component in a piece of writing that wasn't doing work. Read the sentence without the bracketed material to see if it works. Soon you will learn to use mental brackets around your own clutter. Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author's voice. Look for 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? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it's beautiful? (pg. 15)

  • There's no better friend to have around to nudge the memory than a thesaurus. It saves you the time of rummaging in your brain - the network of overloaded grooves - to find the word that's right on the tip of your tongue, where it doesn't do you any good. (pg. 35)

  • 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. Therefore, your lead must capture the reader immediately and for him to keep reading. anything will do, as long as it nudges his curiosity. (pg. 55)

  • Something I often do in my writing is to bring the story full circle - to strike at the end an echo of a note that was sounded at the beginning. It gratifies my sense of symmetry, and it also pleases the reader. But what usually works best is a quotation. Go back through your notes to find some remark that has a sense of finality, or that's funny, or that adds an unexpected closing detail. (pg. 65)

  • Learn to alert the reader as soon as possible to any change in mood from the previous sentence. At least a dozen words will do the job for you: "but," "yet," "however," "nevertheless," "still," "therefore," "meanwhile," and several more. I can't overstate how much easier it is for readers to process a sentence if you start with "but" when you're shifting direction. Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with "but." If that’s' what you learned, unlearn it - there's no stronger word at the start. It announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is thereby primed for the change. If you need relief from too many sentences with "but," switch to "however." It is, however, a weaker word and needs careful placement. Don't start a sentence with "however" - it hangs there like a wet dishrag. (pg. 73)

  • Your style will be warmer and truer to your personality if you use contractions like "I'll" and "won't" and "can't" when they fit comfortably into what you're writing. There's no such rule against this informality - trust your ear and your instincts. (pg. 74)

  • Credibility is just as fragile for a writer as for a president. Don't inflate the incident to make it sound more outlandish than it actually was. If the reader catches you in just one bogus statement that you are trying to pass off as true, everything you write thereafter will be suspect. It's too great a risk, and not worth taking. (pg. 77)

  • Most of the "writing" done in America is done by dictation. Administrators and executives think in terms of using their time efficiently. This is a false economy - they save a few hours and blow their whole personality. Executives who are so busy that they can't avoid dictating should at least find time to edit what they have dictated, crossing out words and putting words in, making sure that what they finally write is a true reflection of who they are. (pg. 77

  • 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 in a jam. When you find yourself at such an impasse, look at the troublesome element and ask, "Do I Need it all?" Probably you don't. It was trying to do an unnecessary job all along - that's why it was giving you such much grief. Remove it and watch the afflicted sentence spring to life and breathe normally. It's the quickest cure and often the best. (pg. 79)

  • Pronouns can get difficult. He, him, and his are words that can get repetitive. What do we do about these countless sentences? One solution is to turn them into the plural. It's best to go back and forth and to use a little variety. However, you can't do a singular "they." (pg. 82)

  • Managers at every level are prisoners of the notion that a simple style reflects a simple mind. Actually, a simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking; a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too arrogant, or too dumb, or too lazy to organize his thoughts. (pg. 174)

  • Altogether, one sentence could take an hour. Don't degrudge a minute of it. On the contrary, seeing it fall into place will give you great pleasure. No writing decision is too small to be worth a large expenditure of time. Both you and the reader know when your finicky labor is rewarded by a sentence coming out right. (pg. 267)

  • Need to develop a mindset where you are determined to write better than everybody who is competing for the same space. If you would like to write better than everyone else, you must take obsessive pride in the smallest of details in your craft. (pg. 297)

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