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On Writing Well | The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser

07 November, 2022 - 14 min read


I. Brief Summary

William Zinsser was an American writer, editor, literary critic, and teacher. It offers fundamental principles on how to write well. A lot of extremely useful advice in this book.

II. Big Ideas

  • 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.
  • Writers must therefore 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? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time?
  • Try to avoid all words that end in “-ly”. Avoid words like “experiencing”.
  • If you might add, add it. If it should be pointed out, point it out. If it is interesting to note, make it interesting; are we not all stupefied by what follows when someone says, “This will interest you”?
  • Simplify, simplify.
  • Be yourself.
  • To do this, you must relax, and have confidence.
  • If you aren’t allowed to use “I”, at least think “I” while you write, or write the first draft in the first person and then take the “I”s out. It will warm up your impersonal style.
  • Soon after you confront the matter of preserving your identity, another question will occur to you, “Who am I writing for?” It’s a fundamental question, and it has a fundamental answer: You are writing for yourself. Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation.
  • Most adverbs are unnecessary.
  • Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb.
  • Most adjectives are also unnecessary.
  • 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 of”, “rather”, “quite”, “very”, “too”, “pretty much”, “in a sense” and dozens more. They dilute your style and your persuasiveness.
  • Learn to alert the reader as soon as possible to any change in mood from the previous sentence.
  • 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.
  • I only suggest avoiding one form—“I’d”, “he’d”, “we’d”, etc.—because “I’d” can mean both “I had” and “I would”, and readers can get well into a sentence before learning which meaning it is.
  • Always use “that” unless it makes your meaning ambiguous.
  • Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it.
  • Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost.
  • Go with your interests. No area of life is stupid to someone who takes it seriously. If you follow your affections you will write well and will engage your readers.

III. Quotes

  • Decide what you want to do. Then decide to do it. Then do it.
  • Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience—every reader is a different person.
  • 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.
  • Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it.
  • Examine every word you put on paper. You'll find a surprising number that don't serve any purpose.
  • 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.
  • Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.
  • The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.
  • The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.
  • Less is more.
  • Don't be kind of bold. Be bold.
  • If the nails are weak, your house will collapse. If your verbs are weak and your syntax is rickety, your sentences will fall apart.
  • 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?
  • There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.
  • Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can't exist without the other.
  • Learn to enjoy this tidying process. I don't like to write; I like to have written. But I love to rewrite. I especially like to cut: to press the DELETE key and see an unnecessary word or phrase or sentence vanish into the electricity. I like to replace a humdrum word with one that has more precision or color. I like to strengthen the transition between one sentence and another. I like to rephrase a drab sentence to give it a more pleasing rhythm or a more graceful musical line. With every small refinement I feel that I'm coming nearer to where I would like to arrive, and when I finally get there I know it was the rewriting, not the writing, that won't the game.
  • Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.
  • 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" (rest), "initial" (first), "implement" (do), "sufficient" (enough), "attempt" (try), "referred to as" (called), and hundreds more. Beware of all the slippery new fad words: paradigm and parameter, prioritize and potentialize. They are all weeds that will smother what you write. Don't dialogue with someone you can talk to. Don't interface with anybody.
  • As a writer you must keep a tight rein on your subjective self—the traveler touched by new sights and sounds and smells—and keep an objective eye on the reader.
  • The reader is someone with an attention span of about 30 seconds.
  • 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.
  • Thinking clearly is a conscious act that writers must force on themselves.
  • Writing is a craft, not an art, and that the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself.
  • Writers are the custodians of memory.
  • Don't annoy your readers by over-explaining--by telling them something they already know or can figure out. Try not to use words like "surprisingly," "predictably" and "of course," which put a value on a fact before the reader encounters the fact. Trust your material.
  • Simplify, simplify.
  • Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. If you’re not a person who says “indeed” or “moreover,” or who calls someone an individual (“he’s a fine individual”), please don’t write it.
  • But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every words that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that's already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what--these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.
  • Most writers sow adjectives almost unconsciously into the soil of their prose to make it more lush and pretty, and the sentences become longer and longer as they fill up with stately elms and frisky kittens and hard-bitten detectives and sleepy lagoons.
  • Adjectives are used as nouns (“greats,” “notables”). Nouns are used as verbs (“to host”), or they are chopped off to form verbs (“enthuse,” “emote”), or they are padded to form verbs (“beef up,” “put teeth into”). This is a world where eminent people are “famed” and their associates are “staffers,” where the future is always “upcoming” and someone is forever “firing off” a note. Nobody in America has sent a note or a memo or a telegram in years. Famed diplomat Condoleezza Rice, who hosts foreign notables to beef up the morale of top State Department staffers, sits down and fires off a lot of notes. Notes that are fired off are always fired in anger and from a sitting position. What the weapon is I’ve never found out.
  • Nouns now turn overnight into verbs. We target goals and we access facts. Train conductors announce that the train won’t platform. A sign on an airport door tells me that the door is alarmed. Companies are downsizing. It’s part of an ongoing effort to grow the business. “Ongoing” is a jargon word whose main use is to raise morale. We face our daily job with more zest if the boss tells us it’s an ongoing project; we give more willingly to institutions if they have targeted our funds for ongoing needs. Otherwise we might fall prey to disincentivization.
  • Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost. That idea is hard to accept. We all have an emotional equity in our first draft; we can’t believe that it wasn’t born perfect. But the odds are close to 100 percent that it wasn’t. Most writers don’t initially say what they want to say, or say it as well as they could.
  • One man’s romantic sunrise is another man’s hangover.
  • It wont 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 be careful enough.
  • Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.
  • Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.
  • A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time... If you find that writing is hard, it's because it is hard.
  • Every writing project must be reduced before you start to write.
  • Most nonfiction writers have a definitiveness complex. They feel that they are under some obligation—to the subject, to their honor, to the gods of writing—to make their article the last word. It’s a commendable impulse, but there is no last word.
  • There are some writers who sweep us along so strongly in their current of energy--Normal mailer, Tom Wolfe, Toni Morrison, William F. Buckley, Jr., Hunter Thompson, David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers--that we assume that when they go to work the words just flow. Nobody thinks of the effort they made every morning to turn on the switch. You also have to turn on the switch. Nobody is going to do it for you.
  • Today the outlandish becomes routine overnight. The humorist is trying to say that it's still outlandish.
  • Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it's not a question of gimmicks to "personalize" the author. It's a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.
  • Good writing is lean and confident.
  • Nobody turns so quickly into a bore as a traveler home from his travels. He enjoyed his trip so much that he wants to tell us all about it—and “all” is what we don’t want to hear. We only want to hear some.
  • Truth needs no adornment.
  • Some people write by day, others by night. Some people need silence, others turn on the radio. Some write by hand, some by typewriter or word processor, some by talking into a tape recorder. Some people write their first draft in one long burst and the revise; others can't write the second paragraph until they have fiddled endlessly with the first. But all of them are vulnerable and all of them are tense.
  • A writer will do anything to avoid the act of writing.
  • Writing is an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper.
  • When I tell aspiring writers that they should think of themselves as part entertainer, they don’t like to hear it—the word smacks of carnivals and jugglers and clowns. But to succeed you must make your piece jump out of a newspaper or a magazine by being more diverting than everyone else’s piece. You must find some way to elevate your act of writing into an entertainment. Usually this means giving the reader an enjoyable surprise. Any number of devices will do the job: humor, anecdote, paradox, an unexpected quotation, a powerful fact, an outlandish detail, a circuitous approach, an elegant arrangement of words. These seeming amusements in fact become your “style.”
  • It requires writers to do two things that by their metabolism are impossible. They must relax, and they must have confidence.
  • There is no minimum length for a sentence that’s acceptable in the eyes of God.
  • Don’t fight such a current if it feels right. 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.
  • You won’t write well until you understand that writing is an evolving process, not a finished product. Nobody expects you to get it right the first time, or even the second time.
  • Writing is such a lonely work that I try to keep myself cheered up.
  • Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all.
  • But on the question of who you're writing for, don't be eager to please.
  • Don’t annoy your readers by over-explaining—by telling them something they already know or can figure out.
  • Clichés are the enemy of taste.
  • ‘Myself’ is the refuge of idiots taught early that ‘me’ is a dirty word.
  • Every writer is starting from a different point and is bound for a different destination. Yet many writers are paralyzed by the thought that they are competing with everybody else who is trying to write and presumably doing it better. Forget the competition and go at your own pace. Your only contest is with yourself.
  • Remember that words are the only tools you’ve got. Learn to use them with originality and care. And also remember: somebody out there is listening.
  • Not every oak has to be gnarled.
  • Good writers are visible just behind their words.
  • Nobody told all the new computer writers that the essence of writing is rewriting. Just because they’re writing fluently doesn’t mean they’re writing well.
  • I don’t want to give somebody my input and get his feedback, though I’d be glad to offer my ideas and hear what he thinks of them.
  • We have become a society fearful of revealing who we are.
  • A generation ago our leaders told us where they stood and what they believed. Today they perform strenuous verbal feats to escape that fate.
  • Can (...) principles be taught? Maybe not. But most of them can be learned.
  • The writer, his eye on the finish line, never gave enough thought to how to run the race.
  • Don't start a sentence with “however”—it hangs there like a wet dishrag. And don't end with “however”—by that time it has lost its howeverness.
  • Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is.
  • I urge people to write in the first person: to use "I" and “me" and “we" and “us." They put up a fight.