Notes From William Zinsser's On Writing Well

Published in Books - 3 mins to read

I thought I was a passable writer, but Zinsser changed that - although he also showed me the path to proficiency. I’d expected his book to be dry and instructional, but I was wrong. Zinsser begins by stating his belief that writing is a craft which can be honed with diligence and care, and then spends the rest of the pages demonstrating - not merely expounding - on his point. I came away from the book inspired to not only write more, but to strive to write like Zinsser. Here is, briefly, what I learned from On Writing Well.

The writer’s top priorities should always be clarity and simplicity - all clutter or jargon should be removed as part of the editing process. A good piece of writing will take several rewrites, and writers should endeavour to enjoy editing their work as much as they do writing. A good piece of writing has unity - there is a primary tense, tone and topic, all of which can be briefly deviated from, but only for good reason. The writer should pick a single thing to say, and not say any more.

Writers should be themselves while writing, which will help their writing feel natural and alive - readers are often reading for the writer’s personality as much as for their content. Avoid passive verbs and cliches, and instead replace them with activity and freshness. Good writing is often humourous, but written humour is best when understated - let the reader figure out the joke for themselves and they will enjoy it more. Writing is heard in the reader’s mental ear, and it should have an appropriate flow and cadence - improve this by reading a piece aloud.

The start of any piece of writing should grab the reader’s attention immediately, through an interesting anecdote, question, joke or similar. This attention must be held tightly until the reader is sufficiently invested in the piece that they will continue reading until the end. Avoid a conclusion paragraph which restates those before it - it will bore both reader and writer - and instead end a piece on one final twist; some surprise, another joke, a quirky quote or callback. For the middle, pre-empt what questions or feelings the reader might have about the preceding paragraph, and build upon those in the next.

I wonder how Zinsser would have updated his book for the Internet age, given its introduction of new words and emphasis on speed over clarity or grammatical correctness. I am confident of one thing - he would’ve approved of everybody having a Substack:

Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it.

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