On Writing Well

By

William Zinsser

Read in
August, 2020
My rating:
8
/10

Summary

Zinsser lays down the law. Although I'm sure there is some debate on the finer points in more academically-minded circles, this was a reassuring starting point for understanding the fundamental elements of writing quality non-fiction prose.

Notes

Introduction

For better or for worse, the act of writing has changed relatively little regardless of technological change in the last century.

Our modern world still depends on good writing to function well - poorly written articles, websites, tweets... it doesn't matter - all can be made or broken with the quality of the writing.

The essence of writing is rewriting - you won't get it right the first time round.

'Nothing has replaced the writer. He or she is still stuck with the same old job of saying something that other people will want to read.'

Part 1 - Principles

1 The Transaction

The act of writing is no monolith. It is unique to every different person who writes. In the day, at night, at length, in pieces, long pieces, short pieces, many pieces at a time. In sum: there is no right way of doing things. You must find your own rather than trying to ape someone else.

What's more, you are not trying to sell your subject, you are selling yourself.

Good writing is alive and keeps the reader moving with eagerness through the piece you have written - gimmicks and 'added style' do nothing to help this. You must write with clarity and strength to keep the reader with you along the way.

2 Simplicity

Many are tempted to inflate their writing into extremely bloated sentences with long, complicated words. This can make a writer feel important, but bore a reader to tears.

It can also be tempting to think 'hey this sentence is too simple... there must be something wrong with it!' and stuff some more words in there.

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

If you are hoping to write clearly and concisely you must be able to think clearly and concisely. (I believe it works the opposite way, too.)

When you are writing you must constantly ask yourself the question: 'what am I trying to say?' When you ask this you find out that, maybe, you don't know and that you need to figure that out before you start writing again.

3 Clutter

Good writing is lean writing - if a word doesn't need to be there, kick it out. Pompous puff makes a writer feel important and smart (typically guilty are Academics and management consultants), but it blunts the truth of the statement.

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

Utilise/use, sufficient/enough, implement/do...

Zinsser recommends that anywhere up to 50% of a first draft can be cut and that writers do so wherever possible. Prune ruthlessly. Are you keeping something just because it feels nice and you like that you wrote it? Cut, cut, cut.

'“It is interesting to note.” If you might add, add it. If it should be pointed out, point it out.'

4 Style

Writing is an act of ego and we might as well just admit it, then use that to drive our writing forwards. There is no shame in having an opinion, quite the opposite. Having an opinion and using 'I' in an active way is easier to engage with, easier to write and far more compelling.

Better to have an opinion and say 'I', 'we', 'us', 'me' than to take everything into a passive voice and to then try to sprinkle some 'style' (whatever that is) on top. Are you worried that you don't have the right to write like that somehow? Who cares! When you start, nobody will be reading it much anyway but you'll be getting better all the while.

'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—and with a toupee there’s always a second glance—he doesn’t look quite right. The problem is not that he doesn’t look well groomed; he does, and we can only admire the wigmaker’s skill. The point is that he doesn’t look like himself.'

5 The Audience

Do not write for an audience. There is no audience. There is only a large number of individuals who will all have their own reactions and interpretations. Writing for 'the audience' will confuse and stifle you (and it would leave me confused as to what to do next).

Instead, write for yourself! Do what delights you and makes you enjoy the act of writing. Don't worry about what the reader will think - you will either get along or you won't. If you write compellingly for yourself, the reader who gets you will really get you. If you try to please everyone, nobody will feel that strongly either way and you will have made a generic piece of writing.

Treat the act of writing a little like having a conversation, or holding forth during a dinner party. Don't spout anything you wouldn't comfortably say in person.

'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.'

6 Words

'The race in writing is not to the swift but to the original.'

Avoid at all costs the cliches of the thousands of writers who have gone before you.

'...what makes the story so tired is the failure of the writer to reach for anything but the nearest cliché. “Shouldered his way,” “only to be met,” “crashing into his face,” “waging a lonely war,” “corruption that is rife,” “sending shock waves,” “New York’s finest”—these dreary phrases constitute writing at its most banal.'

Do not write with words that you think you ought to be writing with. Choose words carefully, act as if you are a poet and listen to what you write. The reader may read with their eyes but they will still hear the words that you've written. This is why it is often helpful to read your writing aloud to yourself as you go.

Think also about the pace of your writing and whether or not it feels 'fresh'. This goes to the point above about writing to an audience or writing for yourself - do what feels exciting and lively to you, not some perceived future editor.

7 Usage

Usage is a tricky subject. Zinsser doesn't delve into the descriptive/prescriptive debate but instead establishes himself as authority more of a more descriptive bent. No mention is really made of dialect either - this is because he is writing firmly from the point of view of 'standard written English'.

'Why is one word good and another word cheap? I can’t give you an answer, because usage has no fixed boundaries. Language is a fabric that changes from one week to another'

The above quote is interesting. How do the changes happen? Does someone say they should happen, or do influential people use language differently? Who are those influential people? What dialect do they speak/write? Who moves the boundaries and how?

The broad stroke of the argument here is to make yourself aware of the forms of your time and context, then either follow or break them based on what is best for the piece you are writing. That is, ignore the split infinitive and preposition-placement pedants ... but don't go too far.

Part 2 - Methods

8 Unity

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

When writing, consider the unity of tense, pronoun, mood. How are you going to address the reader? In the past, in the present? In the first person? In the third? Formally, informally? Neutrally, judgmentally? Make these decisions before you start writing and allow them to guide your hand when you write.

If, in the act of writing, you find yourself drawn in a very different direction on a question of unity, do not fight it - work your way through the piece and rewrite and revise. To flip-flop between unities is not good for the reader or for you.

This will get easier in time, but only because you'll have done it so frequently before. All writing is a problem to be solved (in obtaining facts, in organising material, in defining a style or approach) but when you solve the same problems again and again and again, they get easier to nail down in the future.

'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. So decide what single point you want to leave in the reader’s mind. It will not only give you a better idea of what route you should follow and what destination you hope to reach; it will affect your decision about tone and attitude.'

9 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.'

A good written piece is like a good mix tape. It's got to open strong to grab your attention and fixate you, then take you on the ebb and flow of a journey that works its way to a powerful ending that leaves a clear, single impression on the reader.

A good lead grabs attention and gives details about what you will then be writing about and why you should bother to continue with reading it.

You could also just tell a story - this is complelling too.

Collect more material than you will use - this surplus may help you to open and close the piece, not least because it might offer some unusual and tangential way in that excites and invites the reader to continue.

'An article that doesn’t stop where it should stop becomes a drag and therefore a failure.'

If something should be ended, end it. Better still if the ending comes as a surprise in both timing and nature - it stands every chance of delighting the reader (so long as it was done after the main body of the piece was actually concluded properly).

10 Bits & Pieces

This chapter is full of advice that would more properly fit in the 'Usage' section further up, because it is largely about usage and punctuation. But it's also sprinkled with a handful of other snippets of advice about how we should think of the exercise of writing itself: that you should write about what interests you and you shouldn't treat it as a competition with anyone else. Quotes below.

'GO WITH YOUR INTERESTS. There’s no subject you don’t have permission to write about. No area of life is stupid to someone who takes it seriously. If you follow your affections you will write well and will engage your readers.'

'WRITING IS NOT A CONTEST. Forget the competition and go at your own pace. Your only contest is with yourself.'

Part 3 - Forms

11 Nonfiction as Literature

An unsurprising argument in a book about nonfiction writing, but an important one to make explicit all the same. Certainly in my youth (during which time my education focused strongly on fiction) I thought that the apex of literary success was the writing of a novel. 'Everyone has at least one good novel inside them'. This determined my decision to study English at University. However, I have read better and more engaging nonfiction writing than some novels, and have read some truly awful novels at that as well.

What has been liberating to me - especially in writing for this website that you're reading these notes on - has been to accept and come to terms with the fact that my preference in writing is for nonfiction. I have no real motivation to invent a world and place characters inside it, that's just not my bag. I truly love good fiction, but as for writing it I am not so keen - a fish out of water.

'Motivation is at the heart of writing. If nonfiction is where you do your best writing, or your best teaching of writing, don’t be buffaloed into the idea that it’s an inferior species. The only important distinction is between good writing and bad writing. Good writing is good writing, whatever form it takes and whatever we call it.'

12 Writing About People

When you write about other people, their words will carry more than your own. So use them. But when you do an interview, come prepared with your homework done and your questions ready to go. When you write about the person, pay them the respect of representing them honestly but make sure you are always writing for the reader. The ethical duty here is clear, but once you've seen to that then make sure you do your job properly.

Consider using a tape recorder instead of making notes, this may help you to be truer to what they say and allows you to build more of a connection with the interviewee.

'The nonfiction writer’s rare privilege is to have the whole wonderful world of real people to write about. When you get people talking, handle what they say as you would handle a valuable gift.'

13 Writing About Places

Writing about places is fraught with cliche because it's such well-trodden ground. If there's even a chance that someone has written about a place in such a way that has already been done before, avoid at all costs.

By that same token, don't shy away from writing about places. You just need to bring a unique approach. If a phrase comes to you with ease, look at it closely to examine if it's just a commonplace cliche from prior travel writing.

'It’s natural for all of us when we have gone to a certain place to feel that we are the first people who ever went there or thought such sensitive thoughts about it.'

14 Writing About Yourself

'If you write for yourself, you’ll reach the people you want to write for.'

Writing about yourself does not have to be a wide and boring story of everything that ever happened to you - more effective is writing about a pivotal episode or moment, perhaps in relation to something else (but not always).

To do this requires some editing of the story and you must make sure to include others, just as much as yourself. A description of a place is one thing - the relationship you have to another is all the more compelling.

'The best gift you have to offer when you write personal history is the gift of yourself. Give yourself permission to write about yourself, and have a good time doing it.'

15 Science and Technology

'Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all.'

Assume that the reader knows nothing, especially when technical topics are at hand. Explaining something even vaguely technical or scientific requires an approach that looks like an upside down pyramid - start with one simple thing and build that out from fact and significance into speculation, impact, and what it means.

You can use your own experience (see 'writing about yourself') or the story of another to walk through this explanation. Or you can relate the story to something that most of your readers will be familiar with.

Most of all, write like a person - not like a scientific paper. You will be writing for readers, after all, who all happen to be people.

16 Business Writing

A particular favourite area of mine because of my previous career working in management consulting where terrible writing (business or otherwise) was as common and expected and encouraged as your worst nightmares might have expected.

Do not be tempted to write about or in business like a 'business' writer. Continue to write like a human being with clear, concise prose that says what it means. Do not 'revert when you have bandwidth'. Instead, 'reply when you have time'. Do not 'proceed to roll-out a new standard operating procedure'. Instead, 'start doing it differently'.

People in businesses are afraid to write like humans because they fear that it is not expected of them and that it somehow looks unprofessional. Any instance in my career where I've encountered anyone who wrote well, like a human, was utterly refreshing and carried way more weight.

'Any organization that won’t take the trouble to be both clear and personal in its writing will lose friends, customers and money. Let me put it another way for business executives: a shortfall will be experienced in anticipated profitability.'

17 Sports

I skipped this section. I've never had much of an interest in sport (and therefore even less interest in writing about it). I may return to this if there's time, particularly if I ever write about eSports.

18 Writing About the Arts

'Critics should like—or, better still, love—the medium they are reviewing. If you think movies are dumb, don’t write about them.'

...and on the other hand, if you love something, make sure to not go wild with sprawling and complicated prose that vibrates with a quivering mass of fancy words you wanted to stuff in there.

Reviewing is different from criticism. Reviewing is where you cover what is happening in an industry - say the release of a new movie and how good it is. Criticism is placing that movie within a larger historical context and considering it alongside other works in the same medium or by the same artist/creator, and indeed any current or previous debate.

Good criticism orients the reader in the middle of that context or debate so you are then able to take them along for the ride.

19 Humor

'Humor is the secret weapon of the nonfiction writer. It’s secret because so few writers realize that humor is often their best tool—and sometimes their only tool—for making an important point.'

Master good writing first and, then, don't be tempted to strain for laughs. You'll find more genuine humour writing from a qualified position about something you have 'shown up' for. It's also funnier when humor comes from a place of truth.

'“I’m here and I’m involved”: make that your creed if you want to write serious humor. Humorists operate on a deeper current than most people suspect.'

Part 4 - Attitudes

20 The Sound of Your Voice

'My commodity as a writer, whatever I’m writing about, is me. And your commodity 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'

Avoid writing in an affected, cutesy, breezy style ('Well now hey y'all!') It works for Instagram recipe accounts and certain influencers, but it sounds stupid for everyone else.

Write as well as you dare to - nobody is going to stop reading because the way you write is too good. This is nonsense.

Good writing and effective style is a matter of taste. What taste means will be different to everyone but the act of simply reading very good writers is helpful enough in figuring this out.

ZInsser also recommends that you not hesitate to imitate other writers, because this is a fine place from which to base one's own creativity. Your own style won't spring forth fully formed, so it's fine to piggyback initially. Over time, your own taste emerges and flourishes.

21 Enjoyment, Fear and Confidence

'“The reader has to feel that the writer is feeling good.” The sentence went off in my head like a Roman candle: it stated the entire case for enjoyment. Then he added: “Even if he isn’t.”'

The whole point of this chapter is to 1) write about things you enjoy writing about and 2) write in such a manner that pleases you! If you do this you'll have greater enjoyment, less fear and more confidence!

He argues that good writing comes from people who do a good amount of living. That is, from people 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. If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write. Learning is a tonic.'

If you think it's funny, make it funny. If you think it's interesting, make it interesting. Continue to be curious and amused and interested and engaged and so will your readers.

22 The Tyranny of the Final Product

What is your quest and what is your intention?

A quest is for something deeper than what you are writing about on the surface level. An idea, a belief, a meaning.

An intention is what we want to accomplish with what we are writing. To affirm, to celebrate, to inform, to debunk, to destroy.

If you have completed your quest and/or delivered on your intention, you are done. Wrap the piece up there and then, do not feel the need to go on.

23 A Writer’s Decisions

'Decide what you want to do. Then decide to do it. Then do it.'

There are many decisions to be made along the way when writing anything. What write, how to write it, how to revise it, how to even end the damn thing. But decide we must, and this can get easier with time, practice and experience.

Important in this process is listening to what you hear. That is - if your piece draws you in a different direction, listen to it. If it is telling you that it is time to end it, end it. If it is telling you that 'now is not the right time to write this', then listen to that, too.

Whatever you do decide, however, it is your job alone to go and get on with it. The stories won't come to you. You must go to the stories and make them happen. No-one else is going to do that.

24 Writing Family History and Memoir

Writing acts in many functions outside of something that is to be published for any one particular readership to read. The simple act of writing something for yourself or for your family has great value as well.

Writing is a very good way to think and a very good way to preserve a certain memory or family history. It helps one get one's thoughts straight and to find a personal sort of clarity that otherwise might not emerge.

Not everything that is written has to be read by the public at large. If for nobody else, write for yourself.

'There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published. Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is to come to terms with your life narrative. Another is to work through some of life’s hardest knocks—loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace.'

'Should I write from the point of view of the child I once was, or of the adult I am now? The strongest memoirs, I think, are those that preserve the unity of a remembered time and place.'

25 Write as Well as You Can

'If you would like to write better than everybody else, you have to want to write better than everybody else. You must take an obsessive pride in the smallest details of your craft. And you must be willing to defend what you’ve written against the various middlemen—editors, agents and publishers—whose sights may be different from yours, whose standards not as high. Too many writers are browbeaten into settling for less than their best.'

What does it mean to 'write as well as you can'? I think this means a few things, but mostly I think it comes down to only one - the desire to always be writing your best piece of work. The last one you wrote was good, yes, but this one? This one is going to be better than that, and the one before it - it's going to be the best one you've written. This cuts across all kinds of different requirements - unity, intention, usage, humour - you name it. Each and every shade of the possible angles of attack are being honed.

To always be reading better writers, to always being reading books about writing, to always be writing - no matter what, at the very least a thousand words a day - and always be 'shipping', that is to be putting your work somewhere for someone to read.

Zinsser also makes the point that there are no more 'discoveries' to be made about the act of writing itself. There'll be no breakthroughs about writing a clear sentence, that's been known for quite some time. The only discovery is the subject matter in the mind of the writer.

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