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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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.”

Rating: 9/10

Related: On Writing, The Elements of Style, Writing to Learn, Bird by Bird, The War of Art

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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 product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is.

At the heart of good nonfiction writing is the personal transaction of humanity and warmth.

Simplicity

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

To achieve freedom from clutter, clear your head of clutter.

Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.

The reader is someone with an attention span of about 30 seconds-a person assailed by many forces competing for attention.

Writers must thus 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?

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 improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.

Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose.

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. They are all weeds that will smother what you write. Don’t dialogue with someone you can talk to.

Just as insidious are all the word clusters with which we explain how we propose to go about our explaining: “ I might add,” “ It should be pointed out,” “ It is interesting to note. “ If you might add, add it. If it should be pointed out, point it out. If it is interesting to note, make it interesting.

Don’t inflate what needs no inflating: “ with the possible exception of” (except), “ due to the fact that” (because), “ he totally lacked the ability to” (he couldn’t), “ until such time as” (until), “ for the purpose of “ (for).

To recognize clutter at a glance, put brackets around every component in a piece of writing that isn’t doing useful work.

Most first drafts can be cut by 50% without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.

Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. 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 it’s beautiful? Simplify, simplify.

Style

“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?”

You have to strip your writing down before you can build it back up. You must know what the essential tools are and what job they were designed to do.

Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. 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.

Writers are obviously at their most natural when they write in the first person. Writing is an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper, and it will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity. Therefore I urge people to write in the first person: to use “I” and “me” and “we” and “us.” They put up a fight.

Good writers are visible just behind their words. 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.

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.

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.

Don’t worry about whether the reader will “get it” if you indulge a sudden impulse for humor. If it amuses you in the act of writing, put it in.

You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for.

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.

But whatever your age, be yourself when you write.

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.

Words

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.

The race in writing is not to the swift but to the original. Make a habit of reading what is being written today and what was written by earlier masters. Writing is learned by imitation.

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.

Good writers of prose must be part poet, always listening to what they write.

Such considerations of sound and rhythm should go into everything you write. If all your sentences move at the same plodding gait, which even you recognize as deadly but don’t know how to cure, read them aloud.

You’ll begin to hear where the trouble lies. See if you can gain variety by reversing the order of a sentence, or by substituting a word that has freshness or oddity, or by altering the length of your sentences so they don’t all sound as if they came out of the same machine. An occasional short sentence can carry a tremendous punch. It stays in the reader’s ear. 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.

Usage

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.

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

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 is the anchor of good writing. So, first, get your unities straight:

  • Unity of pronoun. Are you going to write in the first person, as a participant, or in the third person, as an observer?
  • 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.

Ask yourself some basic questions before you start:

  • “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 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?”

Every writing project must be reduced before you start to write. Therefore think small. Decide what corner of your subject you’re going to bite off, and be content to cover it well and stop.

Every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before.

Now it often happens that you’ll make these prior decisions and then discover that they weren’t the right ones. Don’t fight such a current if it feels right. Adjust your style accordingly and proceed to whatever destination you reach.

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.”

Your lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading.

Next the lead must do some real work. It must provide hard details that tell the reader why the piece was written and why he ought to read it. But don’t dwell on the reason. Coax the reader a little more; keep him inquisitive.

Continue to build. Every paragraph should amplify the one that preceded it. Give more thought to adding solid detail and less to entertaining the reader. But take special care with the last sentence of each paragraph-it’s the crucial springboard to the next paragraph.

Make the reader smile and you’ve got him for at least one more paragraph.

You should always collect more material than you will use. Every article is strong in proportion to the surplus of details from which you can choose the few that will serve you best.

Another approach is to just tell a story. Narrative is the oldest and most compelling method of holding someone’s attention; everybody wants to be told a story.

You should give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did to your first.

The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right.

When you’re ready to stop, stop. If you have presented all the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the nearest exit.

Surprise is the most refreshing element in nonfiction writing. If something surprises you it will also surprise-and delight-the people you are writing for, especially as you conclude your story and send them on their way.

Bits & Pieces

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

Make active verbs activate your sentences, and avoid the kind that need an appended preposition to complete their work

Most adverbs and adjectives are unnecessary. Don’t use them unless they do necessary work

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. Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of the reader’s trust. Be bold

There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough

Break long sentences into two short sentences, or even three

Don’t use the exclamation point unless you must to achieve a certain effect. Instead, construct your sentence so that the order of the words will put the emphasis where you want it

Learn to alert the reader as soon as possible to any change in mood from the previous sentence

Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with “but.” If that’s what you learned, unlearn it — there’s no stronger word at the start. It announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is thereby primed for the change

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

Always use “that” unless it makes your meaning ambiguous. If your sentence needs a comma to achieve its precise meaning, it probably needs “which”

Don’t string two or three nouns together where one noun-or, better yet, one verb-will do

Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a 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. 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

Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost

Don’t annoy your readers by over-explaining-by telling them something they already know or can figure out. Trust your material

Attitudes

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.

Readers will stop reading you if they think you are talking down to them. Nobody wants to be patronized.

Clichés are one of the things you should keep listening for when you rewrite and read your successive drafts aloud.

Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write. Learning is a tonic.

Think broadly about your assignment. Push the boundaries of your subject and see where it takes you. Bring some part of your own life to it; it’s not your version of the story until you write it.

Any time you can tell a story in the form of a quest or a pilgrimage you’ll be ahead of the game. Readers bearing their own associations will do some of your work for you.

Learning how to organize a long article is just as important as learning how to write a clear and pleasing sentence.

All your clear and pleasing sentences will fall apart if you don’t keep remembering that writing is linear and sequential.

Now, what do your readers want to know next? Ask yourself that question after every sentence.

You must find some way to elevate your act of writing into an entertainment. Usually this means giving the reader an enjoyable surprise.

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