What Stephen King is to fiction, William Zinsser is to nonfiction—in other words, the undisputed authority. His seminal book, On Writing Well, has been my personal bible for the thirty years it has been in print. Zinsser was “the real deal”—a journalist, writer, editor, and teacher. He taught at Yale, the New School in New York, and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He wrote eighteen books, including On Writing Well, which sold more than 1.5 million copies and should be on every writer’s bookshelf. He died ninety-two, leaving an unfillable hole in the literary world.
On Writing Well is broken into four sections: Writing Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes. As in the classroom, in this book, Zinsser’s purpose was to teach “how to write about people and places, science and technology, history and medicine, business and education, sports and the arts, and everything else under the sun that’s waiting to be written about.”
When I began writing about this book, I had three insightful quotations under each heading. That meant rereading every chapter and finding the best lines. I got all the way through Part One: Principles and Part Two: Methods when I realized there were two more sections and fifteen chapters left to cover. At that rate, this would be the longest blog post ever written. It was really difficult to pick only one piece of advice from each chapter of On Writing Well when every paragraph contains at least one bit of wisdom worth sharing. If you are a writer of nonfiction, this is a book you want to own and read and highlight and scribble in the margins and make your go-to reference for improving your own writing.
My new approach (painful as it is to prune three quotes down to one) is to give you one highlight from each of the twenty-five chapters in the hope that you will run right out to your favorite bookstore or click on Amazon and buy this book.
“Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon … The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”
“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.”
“There is no excuse for losing readers through sloppy workmanship. First, work to master the tools. Simplify, prune, and strive for order. Relax and say what you want to say. Think of this as a mechanical act, and soon your sentences will become cleaner.”
“Remember that words are the only tools you’ve got. Learn to use them with originality and care. Notice the decision that other writers make in their choice of words and be finicky about the ones you select from the vast supply.
“Good usage, to me, consists of using good words if they already exist—as they almost always do—to express myself clearly and simply to someone else.”
“Unity is the anchor of good writing. Unity not only keeps the reader from straggling off in all directions; it satisfies your readers’ subconscious need for order and reassures them that all is well at the helm.”
“The most important sentence in the 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 force him to keep reading.”
Bits & Pieces
This section is a grab bag of parts of speech, punctuation, mood changers, and all kinds of things that trip up writers. Here are some of the pearls within:
- “Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum. Active verbs push hard; passive verbs hug fitfully.”
- “Most adverbs are unnecessary (Stephen King agrees but in much stronger language). Most adjectives are also unnecessary.”
- “Many of us are taught that no sentence should begin with but. If that’s what you learned, unlearn it – there is no stronger word at the start.”
- “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.”
- “Don’t string two or three nouns together where one noun—or, better yet, one verb—will do … Don’t overstate … Don’t inflate an incident to make it more outlandish than it actually was.”
- “Writing is not a contest. Forget the competition and go at your own pace. Your only contest is with yourself.”
- “Your subconscious mind is more writing than you think. When you sleep your writer’s mind doesn’t. A writer is always working.”
- “Surprisingly, often a difficult problem in the sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it.”
- “Keep your paragraphs short. Writing is visual – it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain.”
- “Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost. That idea is hard to accept. The newly hatched sentence almost always has something wrong with it.”
- “You won’t write well until you understand that writing is an evolving process, not a finished product.”
There is more, much more, fifteen more sections to be exact. I could keep on quoting, but then this blog would be twenty pages long, and you wouldn’t have to bother to read the book. I cannot stress enough how much I think you will gain from reading this book, including the joy of discovering the prose of an author who is a respected—in fact, renowned—maestro on writing well.