On Writing Well

William Zinsser
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Writing
Read Time
6
-minutes
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This book is filled with informative and insightful guidance on how to make your writing sing. An essential read for anyone who does any amount of writing.

Principles

Simplicity

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

Read your writing aloud to identify clutter that can be removed.

Clutter

Is there any way to recognise clutter at a glance? Here’s a device my students at Yale found helpful. I would put brackets around every component in a piece of writing that wasn’t doing useful work.

Style

The reader will notice if you are putting on airs. Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself.

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.

Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation.

Words

You’ll never make your mark as a writer unless you develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive.

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.

Methods

Unity

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.

  • Pronoun — Are you going to write in the first person, as a participant, or in the third person, as an observer? Or even in the second person.
  • Tense — Most people write mainly in the past tense (“I went up to Boston the other day”), but some people write agreeably in the present (“I’m sitting in the dining car of the Yankee Limited and we’re pulling into Boston”).
  • Mood — You might want to talk to the reader in the casual voice that The New Yorker has strenuously refined. Or you might want to approach the reader with a certain formality to describe a serious event or to present a set of important facts.

Questions to ask before writing anything:

  • “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?

Most nonfiction writers have a definitiveness complex. They feel that they are under some obligation—to the subject, to their honor, to the gods of writing—to make their article the last word. It’s a commendable impulse, but there is no last word. What you think is definitive today will turn undefinitive by tonight, and writers who doggedly pursue every last fact will find themselves pursuing the rainbow and never settling down to write.

Think small. Decide what corner of your subject you’re going to bite off, and be content to cover it well and stop.

Lead and 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.

Narrative is the oldest and most compelling method of holding someone’s attention; everybody wants to be told a story. Always look for ways to convey your information in narrative form.

A formal ending or conclusion is often not needed

For the nonfiction writer, the simplest way of putting this into a rule is: 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.

Bits and Pieces

Verbs — Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb. “Joe saw him” is strong. “He was seen by Joe” is weak.

Adverbs — Don’t tell us that the radio blared loudly; “blare” connotes loudness.

Adjectives — Most adjectives are unnecessary. Make your adjectives do work that needs to be done. “He looked at the grey sky and the black clouds and decided to sail back to the harbour.” The darkness of the sky and the clouds is the reason for the decision.

Little qualifiers — Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.

Mood changers

  • Learn to alert the reader as soon as possible to any change in mood from the previous sentence.
  • At least a dozen words will do this job for you: “but,” “yet,” “however,” “nevertheless,” “still,” “instead,” “thus,” “therefore,” “meanwhile,” “now,” “later,” “today,” “subsequently” and several more.
  • Don’t start a sentence with “however”—it hangs there like a wet dishrag. And don’t end with “however”—by that time it has lost its howeverness. Put it as early as you reasonably can.

That and which

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

Concept nouns

  • Avoid writing sentences that have no people in them.
  • The common reaction is incredulous laughter. → Most people just laugh with disbelief.

The subconscious mind

  • When you're stuck take a break or come back to it later.
  • Frequently a solution will occur to you the next morning when you plunge back in.

The quick fix — Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it.

Paragraphs

  • 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.

Sentences

  • Vary sentence length to avoid a monotonous rhythm.
  • Each sentence contains one thought—and only one. Readers can process only one idea at a time, and they do it in linear sequence.

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

Writing about Science and Technology

For practice describe how a process works. It forces you to make sure you know how it works. Then it forces you to take the reader through the same sequence of ideas and deductions that made the process clear to you.
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 the second, so that you can 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.

Attitudes

Voice

Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognise when they hear it on the page, a voice that’s enjoyable not only in its musical line but in its avoidance of sounds that would cheapen its tone: breeziness and condescension and clichés.

Confidence and Curiosity

Living is the trick. Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That’s almost the whole point of becoming a writer. If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write. Learning is a tonic.

“That’s interesting.” If you find yourself saying it, pay attention and follow your nose. Trust your curiosity to connect with the curiosity of your readers.