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On Writing Well by William Zinsser

I enjoyed the book so much that I had to stop and laugh, especially during the first few chapters. Partly because it “joked” about how people made language complex in daily life. Something I had never noticed. Partly because it “joked” about how writers struggle to put words on paper. Something I started to understand. I said “joked” because that’s what I felt like. It’s more of a style. Or how good writings look like.

Many writers I’ve followed—Morgan Housel, David Perell, Daniel Gilbert, Derek Sivers—have mentioned similar ideas, but reading this classic book gave me deeper understanding and ideas to practice.

The message Zinsser sent throughout the book is simple yet powerful. First is to simplify, strip every unnecessary pieces. Then build it up with style, using our own voice, most importantly, with humanity and warmth.

I had to admit, due to my lack of knowledge in English—the book was first published more than 40 years ago—I found it difficult at times to understand the exact meaning of some words, or appreciate the writing samples it presents, although I did enjoy the beauty of English from a lot of examples. And most ideas can be applied to any language. I hope I could catch up when I re-read the book.

Highlights #

What was it like to be a writer? He said it was tremendous fun. Coming home from an arduous day at the hospital, he would go straight to his yellow pad and write his tensions away. The words just flowed. It was easy. I then said that writing wasn’t easy and wasn’t fun. It was hard and lonely, and the words seldom just flowed.

Note: the opening story is so funny! p. 3

This is the personal transaction that’s at the heart of good nonfiction writing. Out of it come two of the most important qualities that this book will go in search of: humanity and warmth.

Note: absolutely love it. p. 5

Don’t try to visualize the great mass is audience. There is no such audience. Every reader is a different person.

p. 5

The answer is to clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.

p. 8

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

p. 8

The point is that you have to strip your writing down before you can build it back up.

p. 18

Trying to add style is like adding a toupee. At first glance the formerly bald man looks young and even handsome. But at second glance—with a toupee there’s always a second glance—he doesn’t look quite right… The point is that he doesn’t look like himself.

p. 18

What I’m always looking for as an editor is a sentence that says something like “Ill never forget the day when I..” I think, “Aha! A person!”

p. 20

How can you think carefully about not losing the reader and still be carefree about his opinion? I assure you that they are separate processes.

Note: Like process and goals p. 25

Writing is learned by imitation. If anyone asked me how I learned to write, I’d say I learned by reading the men and women who were doing the kind of writing wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it.

p. 34

Also bear in mind, when you’re choosing words and stringing them together, how they sound.

p. 35

E. B. White makes the case cogently in The Elements of Style, a book every writer should read once a year…

p. 35

That’s where all careful writers ought to be looking at every new piece of flotsam that washes up and asking “Do we need it?”

p. 43

I don’t want to give somebody my input and get his feedback though I’d be glad to offer my ideas and hear what he thinks of them.

Note: surprised to see so many words we use daily were not in the English a few decades ago p. 45

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

p. 49

All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem.

Note: Isn’t true for everything? p. 49

Enthusiasm is the force that keeps you going and keeps the reader in your grip. When your zest begins to ebb, the reader is the first person to know it.

p. 52

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. Not two thoughts, or five-just one.

Note: The second sentence is to emphasize. p. 52

Trust your material if it’s taking you into terrain you didn’t intend to enter but where the vibrations are good. Adjust your style accordingly and proceed to whatever destination you reach. Don’t become the prisoner of a preconceived plan. Writing is no respecter of blueprints.

p. 53

Therefore your lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading. It must cajole him with freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humor, or surprise, or with an unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question.

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.

p. 55

The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right. They didn’t expect the article to end so soon, or so abruptly, or to say what it said. But they know it when they see it.

p. 64

Most adverbs are unnecessary. You will clutter and annoy the reader if you choose your verb that has a specific meaning and then add an adverb that carries the same meaning.

p. 68

Again, the rule is simple: make your adjectives do work that needs to be done.

p. 70

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. They dilute your style and your persuasiveness.

p. 70

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.

p. 73

Learn to enjoy this tidying process. I don’t like to write; I like to have written. But I love to rewrite. I especially like to cut: to press the DELETE key and see an unnecessary word or phrase or sentence vanish into the electricity. I like to replace a humdrum word with one that has more precision or color. I like to strengthen the transition between one sentence and another.I like to rephrase a drab sentence to give it a more pleasing rhythm or a more graceful musical line.With every small refinement I feel that I’m coming nearer to where I would like to arrive, and when I finally get there I know it was the rewriting, not the writing, that won the game.

Note: Nice ending as well p. 87

No subject is too specialized or too quirky if you make an honest connection with it when you write about it.

p. 91

People and places are the twin pillars on which most nonfiction is built. Every human event happens somewhere, and the reader wants to know what that somewhere was like.

p. 116

Nobody turns so quickly into a bore as a traveler home from his travels. He enjoyed his trip so much that he wants to tell us all about it-and “all” is what we don’t want to hear. We only want to hear some. What made his trip different from everybody else’s? What can he tell us that we don’t already know? We don’t want him to describe every ride at Disneyland, or tell us that the Grand Canyon is awesome, or that Venice has canals. If one of the rides at Disneyland got stuck, if somebody fell into the awesome Grand Canyon, that would be worth hearing about.

p. 117

How can you overcome such fearful odds and write well about a place? My advice can be reduced to two principles-one of style, the other of substance.

First, choose your words with unusual care.

As for substance, be intensely selective. If you are describing a beach, don’t write that “the shore was scattered with rocks or that “occasionally a seagull flew over.”

p. 118

My method was not to ask tourists gazing up at Mount Rushmore, “What do you feel?” T know what they would have said: something subjective (*It’s incredible!”) and therefore not useful to me as information. Instead I went to the custodians of these sites and asked: Why do you think two million people a year come to Mount Rushmore? Or three million to the Alamo? Or one million to Concord bridge? Or a quarter million to Hannibal? What kind of quest are all these people on? My purpose was to enter into the intention of each place: to find out what it was trying to be, not what I might have expected or wanted it to be.

p. 130

Ego is healthy; no writer can go far without it. Egotism, however, is a drag, and this chapter is not intended as a license to prattle just for therapy. Again, the rule I suggest is: Make sure every component in your memoir is doing useful work. Write about yourself, by all means, with confidence with pleasure. But see that all the details–people, places, anecdotes, ideas, emotions-are moving and along.

p. 134

Unlike autobiography, which spans an entire life, memoir assumes the life and ignores most of it.

p. 135

The chapter is based on a simple principle: writing is not a special language owned by the English teacher.

Writing is thinking on paper.

p. 147

A tenet of journalism is that “the reader knows nothing.” As tenets go, it’s not a 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 ex plained to them.

p. 148

Imagine science writing as an upside-down pyramid.

Start at the bottom with the one fact a 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 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.

p. 149

Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That’s almost the whole point of becoming a writer. I’ve used writing to give myself an interesting life and a continuing education.

p. 245

The moral for nonfiction writers is: 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.

p. 247

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