Book Review: On Writing Well

 On Writing Well by William Zinsser is on just about every list of books recommended for writers. The subtitle, which I assume is not originally Zinsser’s and was added later, is “The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction.”

Zinsser lived from 1922-2015. He began as a journalist, later wrote for magazines, wrote books on a wide variety of topics, and then began to teach writing. That vast experience informs this book.

On Writing Well was published in 1976 and has been updated numerous times. My copy was published in 2016 with a 2006 introduction by Zinsser explaining the most recent update to include the computer era.

The first of the book’s four parts covers “Principles”: grammar, style, word usage, eliminating clutter, etc.

Part 2 deals with methods: the unity of the piece, the lead and ending, and various other aspects.

Part 3 discusses a variety of forms: the travel article, memoir, science and technology, sports, business, arts, humor. I might have been tempted to skip or at least skim through this section, as most of my writing doesn’t fit those categories. But I have a compulsion to read all of a book. And I am glad I did. A couple of the principles in this section are:

De-jargonize. Almost any field has its own vocabulary. One business hired Zinsser specifically to help them with communication, because even their engineers couldn’t understand each other any more. In one exercise, he had educators rewrite “Evaluative procedures for the objectives were also established based on acceptable criteria,” keeping in mind “clarity, simplicity, brevity, and humanity.” The best result: “At the end of the year we will evaluate our progress” (pp. 171-172).

Focus on the human element no matter what you’re writing about. He gave an example about race car driving, something I have zero interest in. But the piece grabbed me because it shared one person’s story rather than a detailed technical report.

Part 4 explores attitudes: developing confidence and your own style, etc. In one chapter in this section, he gives readers a window into his thought processes by taking them through a longer piece he wrote and discussing why he made the choices he did.

The “clarity, simplicity, brevity, and humanity” mentioned earlier are what the author calls his “four articles of faith” (p. 171). Those are his main themes, demonstrated by example time and again.

This book is chock-full of good instruction and tips. I have markings and sticky tabs on almost every other page. Here are a few of the standout quotes:

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 (p. 9).

The race in writing is not to the swift but to the original (p. 34).

Every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought he or she didn’t have before. Not two thoughts, or five—just one. So decide what single point you want to leave in the reader’s mind (p. 52).

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 (p. 91).

True wit, however, is rare, and a thousand barbed arrows fall at the feet of the archer for every one that flies (p. 194).

Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page (p. 231).

Now, if I could only keep all these wonderful helps in mind all the times I’m writing! I generally only read 3-4 pages at a time so I could process as I went. But I think this is a book I’ll need to reread often in the coming years.

Have you read On Writing Well? What was a major takeaway for you?

(Sharing with Booknificent, Carole’s Books You Loved)

13 thoughts on “Book Review: On Writing Well

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  2. I love this book. I’ve read it several times, but not lately. You’re inspiring me to pull it back out. I have a much older edition though, so I wonder if I should try a newer edition.

    “A clear sentence is no accident.” Isn’t that the truth! One of my takeaways from the book is that it can take a lot longer to craft a short piece than a long one. And I appreciate those who take the time to do so. 🙂

  3. I especially agree with two of the nuggets you selected. The race in writing is not to the swift but to the original. Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page. Have to put this one on my reading list.

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  8. “Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject,” but I would add “do alter your voice to fit your format!” I love to meander in description in a longform reflective piece, but if trying to read a persuasive piece I want to yell “just get to the point!”

  9. I haven’t read this & don’t have the book but it’s been on my radar for quite a few years as I’ve wondered whether it would be any good. Thanks for the review & I think I might get it now I know a bit more about it. Happy New Year, Barbara, & may you read lots of great books in 2020!

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