On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction

by William Zinsser (1922-2015)

William Zinsser taught nonfiction writing at Yale and he was editor of Book-of-the-Month Club. In a nutshell, the message is that good writing is clear, simple, and unpretentious. My father gave me a copy of the third edition of this book when I graduated from high school in the 1980s. While recently rereading it I was amused by Zinsser’s description of a new invention called a word processor—almost like someone describing their car as a horseless carriage. But otherwise the book stands up to the test of time (and there’s a newer edition available).

CLARITY AND SIMPLICITY. “The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur, ironically in proportion to education and rank.”

“Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, whereas one long chunk of type can discourage the reader from even starting to read… Writing that will endure tends to consist of words that are short and strong.”

GLUTEN-FREE. I love Zinsser’s use of the words viscous and glutinous (thick and sticky) to describe writing which does not flow freely.”

LOGICAL. “The ability to think logically is one of the fundamental skills in nonfiction writing. Anyone who thinks logically should be able to write well; anyone whose thinking is fuzzy will never write well. I often think we should teach children simple logic before we teach them how to write… Clear thinking becomes clear writing: one can’t exist without the other.”

ORGANIZING. “Learn to take as much pride in organizing your article as you do in writing it. It’s a more subtle skill than writing elegant individual sentences and is often neglected. But all your elegant sentences will add up to chaos if you don’t remember that writing is linear and sequential, that logic is the glue that holds it together, that tension and pace are crucial. Every component in a piece of writing must do new work, and the transitions must pull the reader from one sentence to the next without noticing the tug. This is where the game is ultimately won or lost: in the hundreds of small details that tell the reader, if only subconsciously, that he’s in the hands of a careful writer.”

REWRITING. “A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this as a consolation in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things that people do… Rewriting is the essence of writing.”

“Most people’s first drafts can be cut by 50 percent—they’re swollen with words and phrases that do no new work whatever… The game is won or lost on hundreds of small details. Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.”

“Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it… Remove it and watch the afflicted sentence spring to life and breathe normally.”

STYLE. “Style is organic to the person doing the writing, as much a part of him as his hair, or, if he is bald, his lack of it. Trying to add style is like adding a toupee… The reader will usually notice if you are putting on airs. He wants the person who is talking to him to sound genuine. Therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself… It’s amazing how often an editor can simply throw away the first three or four paragraphs of an article and start with the paragraph where the writer begins to sound like himself. Not only are the first few paragraphs hopelessly impersonal and ornate; they also don’t really say anything. They are a self-conscious attempt at a fancy introduction, and none is necessary.”

“Don’t say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. If you’re not a person who says ‘indeed’ or ‘moreover,’ or who calls someone an individual (he’s a fine individual’), don’t ever write it.”

“Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to ‘personalize’ the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest strength and the least clutter.”

AUDIENCE. “Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience—every reader is a different person… ‘Who am I writing this for?’ The question that begins this chapter has irked some readers; they want me to say ‘Whom am I writing for?’ But I can’t bring myself to say it. It’s just not me.”

THE LEAD. “The most important sentence in any article is the first one… But take special care with the last sentence of each paragraph—it’s the crucial springboard to the next paragraph.”

THE ENDING. “When you’re ready to stop, stop. If you have presented all the facts and made the point that you want to make, look for the nearest exit… But what often works best is a quotation. Try to find in your notes some remark that has a sense of finality, or that’s funny, or that adds an unexpected last detail.”

SOUND. “Bear in mind, when you are choosing words and stringing them together, how they sound. This may seem absurd: readers read with their eyes. But actually they hear what they are reading—in their inner ear—far more than you realize… See if you can gain variety by reversing the order of a sentence, by substituting a word that has freshness or oddity, by altering the length of your sentences so that they don’t all sound as if they came out of the same computer. An occasional short sentence can carry a tremendous punch. It stays in the reader’s ear.”

HUMANITY AND WARMTH. “In 1961 I agreed to write a small book for the New York Public Library to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of its main building on Fifth Avenue… My story, though ostensibly the chronicle of an institution, was really a story about people… Somewhere in every drab institution are men and women who have a fierce attachment to what they are doing and are rich repositories of lore… The way to warm up any institution is to locate the missing ‘I.’”

VERBS. “Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum. Active verbs push hard; passive verbs tug fitfully. Most verbs also carry somewhere in their imagery or in their sound a suggestion of what they mean: flail, poke, dazzle, squash, beguile, pamper, swagger, wheedle, vex. Probably no other language has such as vast supply of verbs so bright with color. Don’t choose one that is dull or merely serviceable. Make active verbs activate your sentences, and try to avoid the kind that need an appended preposition or two to complete their work. Don’t set up a business that you can start or launch. Don’t face up to a problem that you can confront.”

MOOD CHANGERS. “Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with ‘but.’ If that’s what you learned, unlearn it—there is no stronger word at the start. It announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is primed for the change… I can’t overstate how much easier it is for the reader to process a sentence if you start with ‘but’ when you’re shifting direction, or, conversely, how much harder it is if he must wait until the end to realize that you’re now in a different gear.”

BREAKING RULES. “Obviously these rules have often been bent… Many modern writers—like Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer today—have broken out of the cage, turning a headlong exuberance of language into a source of positive energy. Such skillful acrobats, however, are rare; most nonfiction writers will do well to cling to the ropes of simplicity and clarity.”

LANGUAGE EVOLVES, BUT… “As Dwight Macdonald put it, ‘Simple illiteracy is no basis for linguistic evolution.”

INTERVIEWS. “You will be tempted to use all the words that are in your notes because you performed the laborious chore of getting the words down. But this is no reason to put the reader to the same trouble. Your job is to distill the essence… Play with the ‘quotes’ by all means—selecting, rejecting, thinning, transposing their order, saving a good one for then end.”

REVIEWS. Zinsser makes a distinction between a critic and a reviewer… As a reviewer your job is more to report than to make an aesthetic judgment. You are the deputy for the average man or woman who wants to know: ‘What is the new TV series about?’ ‘Is the movie too dirty for the kids?’ ‘Will the book really improve my sex life or tell me how to make a chocolate mousse?’ Think what you would want to know if you had to spend the money for the movie, the baby-sitter and the long-promised dinner at a good restaurant.”

CRITICISM. “Take your stand with conviction.” The author quotes his old editor at the New York Herald Tribune: “‘Let’s not go peeing down both legs.’… It was a plea that he made often, and it was perhaps the most inelegant advice I ever received… It was also probably the best.”

PROFESSIONAL AND BUSINESS WRITING. “We are suspicious of pretentiousness, of all the fad words that the social scientists have coined to avoid the horrid necessity of making themselves clear to ordinary mortals… Any institution that won’t take the trouble in its writing to be both clear and personal will lose friends, customers and money.”

“Actually a simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking; a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too dumb or too lazy to organize his thoughts. Remember that what you write is often the only chance you’ll get to present yourself to someone whose business you want. If what you write is ornate or pompous or fuzzy, that’s how you’ll be perceived.”

SCIENCE AND TECHNICAL WRITING. “The principle of science writing applies to all nonfiction writing. It’s the principle of leading a reader who knows nothing, step by step, to a grasp of the subject. Once you learn it, remember it in every article you write.”

“Let me tilt the linear example by 90 degrees and ask you to imagine science writing as an upside-down pyramid. Start at the bottom with one fact that a reader must know before he can learn any more. The second sentence broadens what was started first, making the pyramid wider, and the third sentence broadens the second, so that gradually you can move beyond mere 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.”

“Another way of making science accessible is to write like a person and not like a scientist. It’s the same old question of warmth, of being yourself. Just because you’re dealing with a scholarly discipline that’s usually reported in a style of dry pedantry is no reason why you shouldn’t write in good fresh English.”

EDITING. “What a good editor brings to a piece of writing is an objective eye that the writer has long since lost, and there is no end of ways in which an editor can improve a manuscript: pruning, shaping, clarifying, tidying a hundred inconsistencies of tense and pronoun and location and tone, noticing all the sentences that could be read in two different ways, dividing awkward long sentences into short ones, putting the writer back on the main road if he has strayed down a side path, building bridges where the writer has lost the reader by not paying attention to his transitions. An editor’s hand must also be invisible. Whatever he adds in his own words shouldn’t sound like his own words; they should sound like the writer’s words.”

“Clarity is what every editor owes the reader. An editor should never allow something in print that he doesn’t understand himself.”

LOST IN TRANSLATION. The book includes an interesting tangent about the Cold War. “Endless trouble and misunderstanding were caused by the word ‘deterrence,’ which is a slippery concept in English and which is usually translated into Russian as ustashenie. It turns out that ustashenie really means ‘intimidation’ and so it was not surprising that discussions with Russians about deterrence proved frustrating to all concerned.”

I reread my copy of the Third Edition, published in 1985; there is a newer 30th Anniversary edition (2016). Zinsser wrote several other books including Writing to Learn (1993), Mitchell & Ruff (2000) about a pair of Jazz musicians, and Spring Training (1989) about the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team. He also edited Extraordinary Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography (1986) in which six biographers explain their craft.

Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction. 3rd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. Buy from Amazon.com

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Selected Books mentioned:

“What’s the difference between cajole, wheedle, blandish and coax? An excellent guide to these nuances is Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms.”

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.