On Writing Well by William Zinsser: Summary and Notes

A must-read for anyone that writes regularly and wants to upgrade their writing skill.

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Short Summary

On Writing Well by William Zinsser is the best book for learning how to improve your writing. The advice is both concise and practical. A must-read for anyone that writes regularly and wants to upgrade their writing skill.

The Transaction

The essence of writing is rewriting.


The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.


“But,” you may say, “if I eliminate everything you think is clutter and if I strip every sentence to its barest bones, will there be anything left of me?”

The Audience

“Who am I writing for?” You are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience-every reader is a different person.


There is a kind of writing that might be called journalese, and it’s the death of freshness in anybody’s style. It’s the common currency of newspapers and of magazines like People-a mixture of cheap words, made-up words and clichés that have become so pervasive that a writer can hardly help using them. You must fight these phrases or you’ll sound like every hack.


What is good usage? One helpful approach is to try to separate usage from jargon. For example: “ prioritize” is jargon-a pompous new verb that sounds more important than “ rank”-and that “ bottom line “ is usage, a metaphor borrowed from the world of bookkeeping that conveys an image we can picture.


You learn to write by writing. The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.

  • Unity of tense. Choose the tense in which you are principally going to address the reader, no matter how many glances you may take backward or forward along the way
  • Unity of mood. Any tone is acceptable. But don’t mix two or three.
  • “What pronoun and tense am I going to use?”
  • “What style?” (Impersonal reportorial? Personal but formal? Personal and casual?)
  • “What attitude am I going to take toward the material?” (Involved? Detached? Judgmental? Ironic? Amused?)
  • “How much do I want to cover?”
  • “What one point do I want to make?”

The Lead and the Ending

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. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the “ lead.”

Bits & Pieces

Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb


Your commodity as a writer is you. Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page.

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