On Writing Well – William Zinsser

Book Cover of William Zinsser's bestseller"On Writing Well"

Why should you read this book?

We’re all lousy writers. Even the good ones aren’t good all the time. Simply because we write fluently doesn’t mean we are writing well.

This book teaches simple, actionable techniques for writing non-fiction. Not just books, but everyday non-fiction: emails, memos, website copy, blog posts, anything that gets ideas from your head into someone else’s.

Writing well hinges on three principles: simplicity, compelling beginnings and endings, and enjoying the process.

This book is the one recommendation I make when people ask me how they can improve their professional writing.

Buy the book.

Think clearly. Write simply.

Peppering obscure words in writing impresses no one.

Nor do long, meandering sentences with too many clauses.

The worst are nouns and verbs weighed down by unnecessary qualifiers.

All these distract the reader from your point. Cut them out. Ruthlessly.

Strip every component of your sentence into its cleanest form. Cut words that don’t do anything. Use shorter words. And always ask: Can this be simpler?

Simple isn’t easy, though. Writing simply means thinking clearly.

If you’re using verbiage, jargon, or fluff, you’re probably hiding a half-baked idea behind it. That’s lazy. Don’t make a habit of it. Don’t give yourself room to hide – this will force you to think clearly.

It comes down to one question – What am I trying to say? This is harder than it looks, especially if you’re still figuring it out. It may take several rewrites. And at the end of each rewrite, ask yourself – Have I said what I meant to say?

After decluttering the mind, you have to declutter the page. Cut words out and see if the sentence still makes sense. Cut all such words.

Examples of redundant words:

Prepositions: Why “face up to a challenge”, when you can simply “face a challenge”?

Adjectives: Why describe a “personal acquaintance” when acquaintances, by definition, are personal?

Verbiage: “Currently”, “Presently”, “At this time” can all be “now”.

Remember: A good sentence is easy to read. But it takes skill, thought, and practice to write one.

Make it yours. Find a voice.

Good writing means simplicity. Great writing, simplicity with style.

Style alone is useless. A pretty house without a concrete foundation will soon collapse. If you haven’t mastered simple, clear sentences, no amount of style can save your writing.

Great style in writing, as in fashion, means one thing only: be yourself. It takes time and a few faux-pas to find the clothes that fit and flatter you. Similarly, it takes some trial and error to find your style.

To start developing a style, just write. Don’t stare at the blank page, worrying whether your writing will live up to your expectations. That creates unnecessary stress. You’re more likely to find your voice when you’re relaxed.

Throw in the first sentence. Then the second. Then the third. They may be clunky, robotic, but keep going on. Your first two paragraphs may be nightmares, but you’ll find you’re more relaxed by your third, fourth, fifth paragraphs. You’ll get into a rhythm. You’ll get out of your own way.

You’ll know you’re in rhythm when you stop reaching for words to impress, and start seeking words that are fitting.

A shortcut to finding your natural flow? Write in the first person wherever allowed. “I think”, “I feel”, or “I believe” makes you sound natural. Of course, it’s inappropriate in news reports, academic writing, or corporate literature, but the first person can be freeing in emails, blog posts, or internal company memos.

The more you write with ease, the closer you’ll get to your voice.

Choose your words with care.

You can’t tune a piano with a wrench. Or hang a picture with a crochet needle. Writing is a craft and you need the right tools for the job, every single time.

For starters, avoid clichés. Phrases like “diamond in the rough” or “as old as the hills” turn your readers off. They toss your writing aside, knowing there will be no originality and no delightful surprise.

You can add variety by looking at the thesaurus. If “pale” is too pale for you, your thesaurus suggests “waxen”, “sallow”, “blanched”, and “spectral”. But be careful. Don’t blindly choose one that sounds impressive. Understand that synonyms are similar, but they carry nuances. Choose the one that best captures what you want to convey. It may just be “pale.” Variety is good; precision, better.

Word choices also affect the rhythm of the sentence. Though rarely read aloud, your readers still “hear” your writing in their head. So, while writing, read out your sentences, or have someone else do it. Fix anything that is too hard to say or too difficult to follow.

It’s best to stay away from ultra-contemporary buzzwords and jargon, but some neologisms – newly coined words – become essential when they fill a gap in the language. Words like “dropout”, “laptop”, “multitask” are recently-coined, but no other word or short phrase can effectively replace them. Use a neologism when nothing else captures what it captures.

Some words may occasionally become fashionable, without filling an existing language gap. Avoid them. No point asking someone how a decision “impacts” them, when you can ask how it “affects” them.

Stay focused. Stay consistent.

A common novice mistake: changing style from paragraph to paragraph. What starts as a personal account of a trip to Italy, becomes a Lonely Planet style fact book mid-way. Individually, each paragraph is clear, but as a whole they are inconsistent.

To keep the writing consistent, ask focused questions:

Who is my audience? Is it the general populace or enthusiasts of a specific niche?

How do I want to talk to them? Formal or informal? Humorous? Ironic? Poetic? Past tense or present? First person or third?

What is the hero point? Good non-fiction leaves the reader with one provocative thought. Not two, not five – just one.

If writing about birdwatching, is it the camaraderie between watchers? Migration patterns? Destruction of natural habitats? It’s tempting to write about all of them, but then the writing will be about none of them. Choose one hero point.

How much do I want to cover around the hero point? Moby-Dick is a long, sprawling novel, but it is still about one person and one whale. It’s broad in coverage, but focused in essence.

Once you know the answers, stick to them. Don’t vacillate mid-way. Don’t start witty, but switch to plain in the third paragraph.

Of course, if you figure out mid-way that your initial answers are not serving your purpose, change. But change consistently from the first sentence to the last.

Make your beginnings and endings count.

If your first sentence doesn’t take the reader to the second one, your writing is dead. If the second doesn’t to the third, equally dead. You might have a literary masterpiece in the middle, but no one will get there with a limp first sentence. (Unless, they are paid to.)

With your lead, tell the reader what’s in it for her. It could be a punchy hook or a slow mystique, but it should make an intriguing promise.

The intriguing promise should be a reveal of the hero point you’re making. It could be a well-honed argument, your surprising perspective on an issue, or even – if you’re a gifted prose stylist – the beauty of your writing. Whatever it is, the reader should get a tease of it in the lead.

Example: “I have often wondered what goes into a hot dog. Now I know and wish I didn’t.” Funny, mysterious, promise of a disturbing surprise.

From the lead, each paragraph should add something concrete. Detail, nuance, complexity, or argument. The final sentence of a paragraph should be a springboard to the next one. It should have a mini-intrigue of its own.

Don’t disrespect the reader. Don’t over-simplify.

Don’t overthink the ending. Don’t over-summarize because you think the reader is too dumb to get the point.

Sweat the details.

Real writers write all the time, not when inspiration strikes. They obsess over every word, rewriting several times till they get it right.

While polishing, watch out for the common pitfalls:

Use active voice wherever possible. “Harry closed the window.” instead of “The window was closed by Harry.”

Choose strong and specific verbs. Are you saying “shone” when you can say “dazzled”? Or “hit” instead of “walloped”?

If you have a strong verb, avoid adverbs. Why say “whispered quietly” when whispering already connotes quiet? Adverbs add only when the effect is unexpected. Say, someone “whispered loudly”.

Same with adjectives. Find a noun that doesn’t need an adjective crutch. And use adjectives only when the effect deviates from the normal. Most dirt is brown, so “brown dirt” is redundant. But “red dirt” is aberrant, so keeping “red” is essential.

When you use adjectives and adverbs sparingly, the few you use become all the more powerful.

Qualifiers are another category of words that dilute prose. Phrases like “a little”, “sort of”, “quite” are used to hide indecision or to soften a negative comment. Saying someone is “fairly tall” may imply they are only of average height. Or saying you “weren’t really happy” simply means you “were unhappy.” Don’t hide.

The only way to avoid all these pitfalls: rewrite. Again and again. Even the most experienced professional writers don’t notice these extra words when they slip in during the first couple of drafts. It’s only when they go hunting for them that they find them. Each rewrite makes the prose cleaner and tighter.

Make rewriting a deliberate practice.

To inspire, be inspired. To delight, be delighted.

If you read extensively, write consistently, and avoid the common writing pitfalls, you will be able to produce clean, competent prose.

But if you don’t enjoy the process, or don’t have confidence in your ability, your competent prose is unlikely to be inspiring or delightful.

Schools are to blame: they take the fun out of writing. By making it an exercise in following strict rules, and penalizing original deviations, they teach us to fear writing. Thankfully, you can unlearn all that and retrain yourself to enjoy.

First, regularly read writers whose prose inspires you, delights you. Read them often and repeatedly.

Second, just start writing. If you feel blocked or doubt yourself, just keep writing whatever you can manage. The only way around blocks is through them.

Third, make a daily schedule for writing. Stick to it.

Fourth, be adventurous, inquisitive, open-hearted. It will give you juicy things to write about, throw interesting people in your path. Their stories will spark stories in you.

To really enjoy writing, writing about your interests, no matter how niche they may be. Passion is infectious. And so is half-heartedness. Which do you want?

And if you’re given a writing assignment about something you just don’t relate with, that’s okay. Dig down and look for a related thing you might resonate with. Approach the assignment from this angle.

Yes, sweating over each word, each sentence, each punctuation isn’t fun. But if you cultivate enjoyment in the process, your prose will reflect it.

Obsess over the Process, not the Product.

If, before you even start writing, you spend too much time thinking how awesome – or how terrible – your final product will be, chances are you’ll not even finish the piece.

Your final output will probably be wildly different from the one you think you’re about to write. That’s a good thing. Because it means you’re thinking while you’re writing.

If you’re too focused on sticking to your initial outline, you’ll miss the story. You have to keep refining as you write. If you want to write about disappearing traditional farms in Wyoming, you might want to do more than just a commentary on the socio-economic problem. No one connects with a generic commentary.

You have to couch your commentary in a story. Maybe narrow your outline to just one farming town in Wyoming. And when you researching, maybe you’ll connect with the story of one farm in that one farming town. Now, you have a story. One family, one farm, as a representative of your core commentary. To reach here, you had to divorce yourself from the original outline and refine it in steps into a story.

The same flexibility is essential for every other element of your writing, including form, style, and structure. By fixating on your initial idea of what the final product would look like, you are stifling its real potential.

Give yourself time and space to explore around, experiment, fail, refine, and rewrite multiple times. Focus on the process, not the product. You’ll be a better writer for it.


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