Cover of book On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

by: William Zinsser

Check out the book on Amazon | your public library.
I rate this a solid 10. A book to revisit many times in the future. It has a lot to teach and I have a lot to learn - as I write more.
I would love to write like him. Humorous but straight & simple. What did I learn in my first iteration? Use precise words. Use verbs. Then use nouns. Use active tense. Use passive if necessary- but maintain the same tense throughout. Use precise colorful verbs- not flowery decorative ones. keep it short. Keep it simple. Write unambiguously. Own your point of view, your opinion. Review and edit. Remove redundancy and be clear who the narrator is. Be personal, not prescriptive. Practice everyday. Seek out beautiful writing, analyze, assimilate it.
And of course, imitate - especially the style you resonate with, clear thinking will lead to clear writing. Writing well will let you know how well you understand a subject and how well you think. Don't patronize the reader. Assume they are smart. But write logically, piece by piece. Make each sentence build up on the last in a logical, linear sequence.
52 Highlights | 19 Notes
  • Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds – the writer is always slightly behind.
  • Is there any way to recognize clutter at a glance? Here's a device my students at Yale found helpful. I would put brackets around every component in a piece of writing that wasn't doing useful work.
    Note: #writing, #writing-technique
  • 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? 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 its beautiful?
    Simplify. Simplify.
  • Therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself.
    No rule, however, is harder to follow. It requires writers to do two things that by their metabolism are impossible. They must relax, and they must have confidence.
  • Therefore I urge people to write in the first person; to use 'I' and 'me' and 'we' and 'us'.
    Note: #writing, #writing-technique
  • Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. 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.
  • First work hard to master the tools. Simplify, prune and strive for order. Think of this as a mechanical act and soon your sentences will become cleaner.
  • The secret of his popularity - aside from his pyrotechnical use of the American language -was that he was writing for himself and didn't give a damn what the reader might think.
    Note: On H.L. Mencken's writing
  • 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. The English language is rich in strong and supple words. Take the time to root around and find the ones you want!
  • If you find yourself writing that someone recently enjoyed a spell of illness, or that a business has been enjoying a slump, ask yourself how much they enjoyed it.
    Note: #writing-technique
  • Also bear in mind, when you're choosing words and stringing them together, how they sound. This may seem absurd: readers read with their eyes. But in fact they hear what they are reading far more than you realize. Therefore such matters as rhythm and alliteration are vital to every sentence.
  • If all your sentences more at the same plodding gait, which even you recognize as deadly but don't know how to cure, read them aloud. (I write entirely by ear and read everything aloud before letting it go into the world.) You'll begin to hear where the trouble lies.
    Note: #writing-technique
  • Unity is the anchor of good writing. So, first, get your unities straight.
  • 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? Or even in the second person…
    Note: #writing-technique
  • Unity of tense is another choice
    Note: Past or present, #writing-technique
  • Another choice is unity of mood. You might want to talk to the reader in the casual voice that the New Yorker has strenuously refined. Or you might want to approach the reader with a certain formality to describe a serious event or to present a set of important facts.
    In fact, any tone is acceptable. But don't mix two or three.
    Note: #writing-technique
  • Therefore ask yourself some basic questions before you start. For example: “In what capacity am I going to address the reader?” (Reporter? Provider of information? Average man or woman?) “What pronoun and tense am I going to use?” “What style?” (Impersonal reportorial? Personal but formal? Personal and casual?) “What attitude an I going to take toward the material?” (Involved? Detached? Judgemental? Ironic? Amused?) “How much do I want to cover?” “What one point do I want to make?”
    Note: Make a cheat sheet of these questions & a checklist. In pdf. Post this worksheet, #to-do
  • Therefore think small. Decide what corner of your subject you're going to bite off, and be content to cover it well, and stop.
  • As for what point you want to make, every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn't have before.
  • Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb.
    Note: #writing-technique
  • Be precise. Use precise verbs.
    Most adverbs are unnecessary. You will clutter up 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.
    Note: #writing-technique
  • Readers want a writer who believes in himself and in what he is saying. Don't diminish that belief. Don't be kind of bold. Be bold.
    Note: #courage
  • The Exclamation Point. Don't use it unless you must to achieve a certain effect.
  • Keep your paragraphs short. Writing is visual -it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain. Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, whereas a long chunk of type can discourage a reader from even starting to read.
    Note: #wabi-sabi, #writing-technique
  • Paragraphing is a subtle but important element in writing nonfiction articles and books - a road map constantly telling your reader how you have organized your ideas. Study good nonfiction writers to see how they do it. You'll find find that almost all of them think in paragraph units, not sentence units.
  • 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.
  • Get people talking. Learn to ask questions that will elicit answers about what is most interesting or vivid in their lives. Nothing so animates writing as someone telling what he thinks - or what he does - in his own words.
  • But on the question of who you're writing For, don't be eager to please. If you consciously write For a teacher or For an editor, you'll end up not writing for anybody. If you write for yourself, you'll reach the people you want to write for.
  • A tenet of journalism is that “the reader knows nothing.” As tenets go, it's not flattering, but a technical writer can never forget it. You can't assume that your readers know what you assume everybody knows, or that they still remember what was once explained to them.
  • Describing how a process works is valuable for two reasons. It forces you to make sure you know how it works. Then it forces you to take the reader through the same sequence of ideas and deductions that made the process clear to you. I've found it to be a breakthrough for many students whose thinking was disorderly.
    Note: #writing-technique, #practice, #blog-idea
  • Imagine science writing as an upside-down pyramid. Start at the bottom with the one fact the reader must know before he can learn any more. The second sentence broadens what was stated first, making the pyramid wider, and the third sentence broadens the second, so that you can gradually move beyond fact into significance and speculation - how a new discovery alters what was known, what new avenues of research it might open, where the research might be applied.
  • Imitate their linear style, their avoidance of technical jargon, their constant relating of an arcane process to something any reader can visualize.
  • He is also enjoying himself and therefore writing enjoyably.
    Note: What about tortured writers who feel that writing is like getting tooth pulled?
  • The way to warm up any institution is to locate the missing “I”. Remember: “I” is the most interesting element in any story.
  • Good criticism needs a lean and vivid style to express what you observed and what you think.
  • What is crucial for you as a writer is to express your opinions firmly. Don't cancel its strength with last-minute evasions & escapes.
  • In short, our class began with by striking first for humor and hoping to wing a few truths along the way. We ended by striving for truth and hoping to add humor along the way. Ultimately, we realized that the two are intertwined.
  • But readers will stop reading you if they think you are talking down to them. Nobody wants to be patronized.
    Note: Respect the reader's intellect.
  • A woman with taste in clothes delights us with her ability to turn herself out in a combination that's not only stylish and surprising, but exactly right. She knows what works and what doesn't.
  • Does this mean that taste can be learned? Yes and no. Perfect taste, like perfect pitch, is a gift from God. But a certain amount can be acquired. The trick is to study writers who have it.
  • After verbs, plain nouns are your strongest tools; they resonate with emotion.
  • Since then I'm made that sense of enjoyment my credo as a writer and an editor. Writing is such lonely work that I try to keep myself cheered up. If something strikes me as funny in the act of writing,I throw it in just to amuse myself. If I think it's funny I assume a few other people will find it funny, and that seems to me to be a good day's work. It doesn't bother me that a certain number of readers will not be amused; I know that a fair chunk of the population has no sense of humor- no idea that there are people in the world trying to entertain them.
  • … 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.
  • Intention is what we wish to accomplish with our writing. Call it the writers soul. We can write to affirm and to celebrate, or we can write to debunk and to destroy; the choice is ours.
  • Readers can process only one idea at a time, and they do it in linear sequence. Much of the trouble that writers get into comes from trying to make one sentence do too much work. Never be afraid to break a long sentence into two short ones, or even three.
  • Decide what you want to do. Then decide to do it. Then do it.
  • My father, a busy businessman with no literary pretensions wrote two family histories in his an old age. It was the perfect task for a man with few gifts for self amusement.
  • 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.
  • Remember: Your biggest stories 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.
  • Remember: Your biggest stories 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.
    Note: #to-try, #project
  • Go to your desk on Monday morning and write about some event that's still vivid in your memory. It doesn't have to be long - three pages, five pages- but it should have a beginning and an end. Put that episode in a folder and get on with your life. On Tuesday morning, do the same thing. Tuesday's episode doesn't have to be related to Monday's episode. Take whatever memory comes calling; your subconscious mind, having been put to work, will start delivering your past.
    Keep this up for two months, or three months, or six months.
    Note: how to write a memoir, #to-try, #project
  • We know that verbs have more vigor than nouns, that active verbs are better than passive verbs, that short words and sentences are easier to read than long ones, that concrete details are easier to process than vague abstractions.
    Note: summary