Rowland Carlson

On Writing Well - by William Zinsser

On Writing Well - by William Zinsser

ISBN: 0060891548
Date read: 2020-04-15
Recommended for: Anyone who needs to convey information in writing.
(See my list of books, for more.)

You can buy it here.

Simple, actionable, great advice for non-fiction writing. Succint and blunt.

my notes

Good writing comes from confidence, enjoyment, intention, and integrity.
Write with clarity, simplicity, brevity, and humanity.
Writing about oneself: matters of selection, reduction, organization, and tone.

The essence of writing is rewriting.
Think of rewriting as a gift.

A badly written message can do a lot of damage.

Avoid deep meaning. Be clear.

Find the real person behind the tension.

The product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who they are.

Humanity and warmth. Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader from one paragraph to the next.

"The sentence is too simple--there must be something wrong with it."

Strip every sentence to its cleanest components.


Take effort not to lose the reader.

The writer, in whose head the connection is clear, hasn't bothered to provide the missing link.

Constantly ask: What am I trying to say?

Have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time?

Don't tolerate clutter. Beware of the long word that's no better than the short word.

Just as insidious are all the word clusters with which we explain how we propose to go about our explaining.
Don't tell your reader you're going to explain. Explain.

Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author's voice.

Be yourself. Don't pretend to be something more than you are.

I will write more naturally in first person.

Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.

You are writing for yourself.

First, work hard to master the tools. Simplify, prune, and strive for order.

An occasional short sentence can carry a tremendous punch. It stays in the reader's ear.

Somebody out there is listening.

Words are the only tools you've got. Use them with originality and care.

Separate usage from jargon.

Use good words if they exist. Express yourself clearly and simply. Avoid creating a term if an existing word will do.

Unity is the anchor of good writing. Therefore choose from among the many variables and stick to your choice.

Unity of pronoun. Unity of tense. Unity of mood.

Therefore ask yourself some basic questions before you start.
"In what capacity am I going to address 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?"

Every writing project must be reduced before you start to write.

Leave the reader with one provocative thought that they didn't have before. Not two thoughts, or five--just one.

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.

Readers want to know--very soon--what's in it for them.

Give more thought to adding solid detail and less to entertaining the reader.

Know when to end an article.
An article that doesn't stop where it should stop becomes a drag and therefore a failure.

Avoid repeating in compressed form what you have already said.

The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right.

When you're ready to stop, stop.

Use precise verbs.

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

Most adjectives are unnecessary. Make your adjectives do work that needs to be done.

Don't hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.

Err on the side of shorter sentences.

Humor is best achieved by understatement, and there's nothing subtle about an exclamation point.

The dash is used in two ways. One is to amplify or justify in the second part of the sentence a thought you stated in the first part.
The other use involves two dashes, which set apart a parenthetical thought within a longer sentence.

Learn to alert the reader as soon as possible to any change in mood from the previous sentence.

Your style will be warmer and truer to your personality if you use contractions.

Avoid one form--"I'd," "he'd," "we'd," etc.--because "I'd" can mean both "I had" and "I would," and readers can get well into a sentence before learning which meaning it is.

Avoid stringing two or three nouns together where one noun--or, better yet, one verb--will do.

Don't overstate.

Don't inflate an incident to make it more outlandish than it actually was.

A writer is always working. Stay alert to the currents around you. Much of what you see and hear will come back having percolated for days or months or even years through your subconscious mind, just when your conscious mind, laboring to write, needs it.

Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it.
Much of the trouble that writers get into comes from trying to make one sentence do too much work. Never be afraid to break a long sentence into two short ones, or even three.

Keep your paragraphs short.

Study good nonfiction writers. Almost all of them think in paragraph units, not in sentence units.

Always look for ways to make yourself available to the people you're trying to reach.

There's nothing more interesting than the truth.

Try not to use words like "surprisingly," "predictably," and "of course," which put a value on a fact before the reader encounters the fact.

There's no subject you don't have permission to write about.

When interviewing, learn to ask questions that will elicit answers about what is most interesting or vivid in their lives. Nothing animates writing as someone telling what they think or do--in their own words.
Somewhere in every drab institution are men and women who have a fierce attachment to what they are doing.
Most people will jump at the chance to talk about their work to an outsider who seems eager to listen.
Single out the sentences that are most important or colorful.
Your job is to distill the essence.
When quoting write with brevity and fair play.
Remember that you can call the person you interviewed.

Never let anything go out into the world that you don't understand.

When you use a quotation, start the sentence with it.
Don't strain to find synonyms for "he said."
When you get people talking, handle what they say as you would handle a valuable gift.

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.
Choose your words with unusual care. Be intensely selective. Find details that are significant. Distill the important from the immaterial.
New sights touch off thoughts that otherwise wouldn't have entered the writer's mind. Let it draw the best out of you.
What brings a place alive is human activity: people doing the things that give a locale its character.

Make sure every component is doing useful work.
Memoir isn't the summary of a life; it's a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.
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.

Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all.

You can't assume that your readers know what you assume everybody knows.

For the principle of scientific and technical writing applies to all nonfiction writing. It's the principle of leading readers who know nothing, step by step, to a grasp of subjects they didn't think they had an aptitude for or were afraid they were too dumb to understand.

Always start with too much material. Then give your reader just enough.

Imitate their linear style, their avoidance of technical jargon, their constant realizing of an arcane process to something any reader can visualize.

We don't want to go anywhere with a mind that expresses itself in such suffocating language.

Be natural. How we write and how we talk is how we define ourselves.

Any organization that won't take the trouble to be both clear and personal in its writing will lose friends, customers, and money.

A simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking; a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too arrogant, or too dumb, or too lazy to organize his thoughts.

The way to warm up any institution is to locate the missing "I". Remember: "I" is the most interesting element in any story.

Avoid cliches.

Critics should love the medium they are reviewing.
Good criticism needs a lean and vivid style to express what you observed and what you think.
If you want to be a critic, steep yourself in the literature of the medium you hope to make your specialty.
Critics should be among the first to notify us when the truths we hold to be self-evident cease to be true.

Use specific detail. This avoids dealing in generalities, which, being generalities, mean nothing.
Avoid ecstatic adjectives.

Never forget that your readers are real people.

You must make an immediate effort to orient your readers to the special world they are about to enter.
As for what remains to be seen, everything remains to be seen. Take your stand with conviction.

Humor allows us to look with a fresh eye at something bizarre in our daily environment that was previously taken for granted.
Control is vital to humor.
Today the outlandish becomes routine overnight. The humorist is trying to say that it's still outlandish.

Simple things are durable. We all need to sleep, eat, and make money.
Don't search for the outlandish and scorn what seems too ordinary.
Humor is built on surprise, and you can surprise the reader only so often.
A humorist who deals with ordinary life never runs out of material.

Don't alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page. A voice that avoids breeziness and condescension and cliches.

Study writers who have taste.

Find the best writers in the fields that interest you and read their work aloud. Get their voice and their taste into your ear--their attitude towards language.

After verbs, plain nouns are your strongest tools; they resonate with emotion.

Eloquence invites us to bring some part of ourselves to the transaction.

The reader has to feel that the writer is feeling good. Even if he isn't.

You have to turn on the switch. Nobody is going to do it for you.

Be accountable to your craft and all its perils of excess and disorder: losing the reader, boring the reader, not keeping the reader engaged from beginning to end.

Your best credential is yourself. Sincerity.

If you want your writing to convey enjoyment, write about people you respect.
Writing to destroy and to scandalize can be as destructive to the writer as it is to the subject.

Any time you can tell a story in the form of a quest or a pilgrimage you'll be ahead of the game. Readers bearing their own associations will do some of your work for you.

The point of the leading information is to get readers so interested that they will stick around for the whole trip.

Fondness for material you've gone to a lot of trouble to gather isn't a good enough reason to include it if it's not central to the story you've chosen to tell.

Readers should always feel that you know more about your subject than you've put in writing.

If a subject interests you, got after it, even if it's in the next county or the next state or the next country. It's not going to come looking for you.
Decide what you want to do. Then decide to do it. Then do it.

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.

Look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you still remember them it's because they contain a universal truth that your readers will recognize from their own life.

Remember this when you write your memoir and worry that your story isn't big enough to interest anyone else. The small stories that still stick in your memory have a resonance of their own. Trust them.

Go to your desk on Monday morning and write about some event that's still vivid in your memory. It doesn't have to be long, but it should have a beginning and an end. Put that episode in a folder and get on with your life. On Tuesday morning, do the same thing. Keep this up for two months, or three months, or six months.

Find some way to elevate your act of writing into an entertainment. Usually this means giving the reader an enjoyable surprise.

Given a choice between two traveling companions--and a writer is someone who asks us to travel with him--we usually choose the one who we think will make an effort to brighten the trip.

Verbs have more vigor than nouns.
Active verbs are better than passive verbs.
Short words and sentences are easier to read than long ones.
Concrete details are easier to process than vague abstractions.

Quality is its own reward.
Take an obsessive pride in the smallest details of your craft.

Always show up with your best, it may be someone's first impression. You never know who's watching.