On Writing Well

The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

By

William Zinsser

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Book Cover: On writing well - The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
Ultimately the product that
any writer has to sell is not
the subject being written about
but who he or she is.

Writer's decisions

  • WHAT
    • What am I trying to say?
    • What one point do I want to make?
    • How much do I want to cover?
    • Have I said it?
  • TO WHOM
    • Who am I writing for?
    • Is it clear for someone encountering the subject for the first time?
  • HOW
    • How do I want to approach the reader?
    • Who do I want to be, addressing the reader?
      Reporter, provider of information, an average man/woman, ...
    • What kind of article am I going to write?
    • 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, judgemental, ironic, amused, ...
  • RE-WRITE
    • A sentence doesn’t fit? → Get rid of it.
    • Is there something the reader should have been told early in the sentence you put near the end?
    • Does he know when he starts sentence-B that you've made a shift — of the subject, tense, tone, emphasis — from sentence-A?

Principles

Simplicity

  • Strip every sentence to its cleanest components
    • Words that serve no function
    • Long words that could be short
    • An adverb that carries the same meaning as the verb
    • Passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what
  • The reader is lost when
    • a sentence can be read in several ways.
    • the writer switch pronouns/tenses mid-sentence
      • lose track of who is talking
      • or when the action took place
    • sentence B is not a sequel to sentence A

Clutter

  • Don't dialogue with someone you can talk to.
  • A sentence that essentially repeats what the previous sentence said.
  • Something readers don't need to know or can figure out for themselves.
  • Long words that are no better than short words
    • Assistance Help
    • Remainder Rest
    • Numerous Many
    • Initial First
    • Facilitate Ease
    • Implement Do
    • Individual Man/Woman
    • Sufficient Enough
    • Attempt Try
    • Referred to as Called
  • Example
    • Free up Free
    • His personal feeling His feeling
    • Her personal physician Her doctor
    • At this point in time Now
    • For the purpose of For
    • Until such time as Until
    • Due to the fact that Because
    • With the possible exception of Except
    • At the present time, we are experiencing precipitation It is raining
    • Are you experiencing any pain?
      Does it hurt?
    • He totally lacked the ability to He couldn't
    • I might add Just add it
    • It should be pointed out Point it out
    • It is interesting to note Make it interesting
  • Unnecessary preposition
    • Order up
    • Smile happily
    • Tall skyscraper
  • Qualifier
    • A bit
    • Sort of
    • In a sense

Style

  • Be yourself
  • Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation.
  • Use ”I”
    • Think “I” while you write, even when you are not allowed to use ”I”
  • Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal.
  • Believe in your own identity and your own opinions

Words

  • Avoid
    • using adjectives as nouns; "greats",  “notables”
    • Using nouns as verbs "to host"
    • Turning nouns into verbs "enthuse”, “emote”, "beef up”, “put teeth into”
  • Readers read with their eyes. But they hear what they are reading.

Methods

Unity

  • Decide what single point you want to leave in the reader's mind.
    It will 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.
  • Leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn't have before, not two thoughts, or five — just one.
  • Unity of 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?
  • Unity of Tense
    • Choose the tense in which you are principally going to address the reader.
  • Unity of Mood
    • Decide what kind of article are you going to write.
      Don’t switch back forth depending on the material.
      Don’t let the materials you gathered control you.
    • How do you want to approach the reader?
    • In what capacity am I going to address the reader?
      Reporter, Provider of Information, Average man/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, judgemental, ironic, amused, ...

The Lead and the Ending

The Lead
  • Readers want to know — very soon — what's in it for them.
  • Must persuade the reader with freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humour, or surprise, or with an unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question
  • Must provide hard details that tell the reader why the piece was written and why he ought to read it. But don’t dwell on the reason.
  • Every paragraph should amplify the one that preceded it.
  • Take special care with the last sentence in each paragraph — it's the crucial springboard to the next paragraph: try to give that sentence an extra twist of humour or surprise — a snapper.
  • Example
    • “I’ve often wondered what goes into a hot dog. Now I know, and I wish I didn’t.“
    • “At some point rather early in the spring of 1947, …”
    • “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.”
    • “In the summer of...“
    • "Put this puzzle together, and you will …”
    • “The problem is long-buried, unspoken for many years in the minds of ...•
    • “Within five minutes, or ten minutes, no more than that ...”
    • “You know more than you think you do.”
The Ending
  • The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right. They didn't expect the article to end so soon, or so abruptly, or to say what it said.
  • 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.
  • Or bring the story full circle
Tension must be maintained from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next.

Bits & Pieces

Verbs
  • Use active verbs.
    Active verbs enable us to visualise an activity — who is doing what.
  • Be precise. Use precise verbs.
  • Avoid verbs that need an appended preposition.
    • Don't set up a business that you can start or launch
    • Someone step down - resign, retire, get fired?
Adverbs
  • Most adverbs are unnecessary.
  • Don't add an adverb that carries the same meaning as the verb.
    • “Clenched his teeth tightly”
    • “Effortlessly easy”
    • "Grinned widely”
  • Don't use adverbs unless they do the necessary work
  • Don't use
    • “Decidedly better ..." decided by whom, on what criteria?
    • "Arguably better …” is it better or not?
Adjectives
  • Most adjectives are also unnecessary.
  • Don’t repeat the concept that is already in the noun.
    • “Brownish dirt”
  • Make your adjectives do work that needs to be done.
    • “Grey sky and black clouds”
Little Qualifiers
  • Don't be kind of bald. Be bold.
  • Good writing is lean and confident.
    • You weren't too happy because the hotel was pretty expensive
    • Don't say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed. Be confused, be tired, be depressed.
    • A bit, a little, sort of, kind of, rather, quite, very, too, pretty much, in a sense, somewhat.
Punctuation
  • The Period Use it more often
  • The Exclamation Point
    • Don’t use it unless you must to achieve a certain effect.
    • Resist using “!” for making a joke or being ironic.
  • The Semicolon
    • Use to add a related thought to the first half of a sentence.
    • Be aware; the semicolon brings the reader, if not to a halt, at least to a pause.
  • The Dash
    • Use to amplify or justify the second part of the sentence a thought you stated in the first part.
    • “We decided to keep going — it was only 100 miles more, and we could get there in time for dinner”
    • Use two dashes to set apart a parenthetical thought within a longer sentence.
      An explanatory detail that might otherwise have required a separate sentence.
    • “She told me to get in the car — she had been after me all summer to have a haircut — and we drove silently into town"
  • The Colon
    • Saying an itemised list
    • List: a, b, c, and d
Mood Change
  • Alert the reader as soon as possible to any change in mood from the previous sentence
  • It's so much easier for the reader to process a sentence when you start with "but” when you're shifting direction.
  • but, yet, however, nevertheless, still, instead, thus, therefore, meanwhile, now, later, today, subsequently, ...
  • Don’t - start or end a sentence with “however”
    Do - “It is, however, ...“
  • ”Yet” as ”Nevertheless”
    • “Yet he decided to go” - "Nevertheless he decided to go”
  • Example
    • “Instead, I took a train.”
    • “Still, I had to admire him.”
    • “Thus, I learned how to….”
    • “It was therefore easy to ….”
    • “Meanwhile, I had...?“
    • “Now I know better.”
    • “Today, you can find….”
    • “Later, I found out why”
Contractions
  • "I’ll”, “won’t”, "can't"
  • Your style will be warmer
  • Avoid “I'd”, “he’d” -- it can mean both I had and I would
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”
  • “Take the shoes that are in the closet”
    • The one that are in the closet, not the ones under the bed
  • ”Take the shoes, which are in the closet”
    • Only one pair of shoes is under discussion; the “which” usage tells you where they are.
  • ”Which” narrowly describe, or identify, or locate, or explain, or otherwise qualify the phase that preceded the comma:
    • ”the house, which has a red roof”
    • “The store, which is called ..."
    • "The Rhine, which is in Germany”
    • "The monsoon, which is a seasonal wind"
    • "The moon, which I saw from the porch"
Conception Nouns
  • Sentences with concept nouns have no people in them.
    They also have no working verbs — only "is” or "isn't”
  • The reader can’t visualise anybody performing some activity.
    Turn it around, get people doing things.
  • Example
    • ”The common reaction is incredulous laughter.”
    • ”Bemused cynicism isn’t the only response to the old system.”
    • “The current campus hostility is a symptom of the charge.”
Creeping Nounism
  • “Communication facilitation skills development intervention” - Not a person in sight, or a working verb.
Overstatement
  • ”The living room leaked as if an atomic bomb had gone off” - Cheap.
Paragraph
  • Keep your paragraph short.
  • Think in paragraph units, instead of in sentence units.
  • Each paragraph has its own integrity of content and structure.
Re-writing
  • Rewriting is the essence of writing well.
  • Writing is an evolving process, not a finished product.
  • Rewriting = reshaping and tightening and refining the raw material you wrote on your first try.
  • Making sure you've given the reader a narrative that he can follow with no trouble from beginning to the end.
    • Is there something the reader should have been told early in the sentence you put near the end?
    • Does he know when he starts sentence-B that you've made a shift — of the subject, tense, tone, emphasis — from sentence-A?
  • Read your article aloud from beginning to the end, always remembering where you left the reader in the previous sentence.
  • Consider what might be missing, or are you repeating yourself.
Trust Your Material
  • There's nothing more interesting than the truth. What people do and what people say.
  • Don't over-explaining — by telling them something they already know or can figure out.
  • Try not to use the words like ”surprisingly”, ”predictably”, and “of course”, which put a value on the fact before the reader encounters the fact.
Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly.

Forms

Writing about people
  • Sentence structure:
    • ❌ Mr Smith said that he liked to ”go downtown once a week and have lunch with some of my old friends.”
    • ✅ “I usually like to go downtown once a week”, Mr Smith said, "and have lunch with some of my old friends.”
  • Example
    • “he pointed out”
    • “he explained”,
    • “he replied”
    • “he added”
Writing about places
  • What made your trip different from everybody else's?
  • What can you tell the readers that they don’t already know?
  • The article that records everything you did on your trip will fascinate you. Will it fascinate the reader? It won’t.
  • “Attractive”, “charming”, “romantic” mean nothing or mean different things to different people
  • Eliminate every such fact that is a known attribute: "Sea had waves, and the sand was white.”
Writing about yourself
  • Think narrow. Memoir isn't the summary of a life; it's a window into a life.
  • Detail. Any kind of detail will work — a sound or a smell or a song title — as long as it plays a shaping role in the portion of your life you have chosen to distil.
  • What did you learn from the hills and valleys of life?
  • Make sure every component in your memoir is doing useful work.
    See that all the details — people, places, events, anecdotes, ideas, emotions — are moving your story steadily along.
  • Every step should seem inevitable it's not what you did in a certain situation that has significance, but how that situation affected you and shaped the person you become.
Writing about Science & Tech
  • Describe how a process works — Step by step.
    • It forces you to make sure you know how it works.
    • Take the reader through the same sequence of ideas and deductions that made the process clear to you.
  • You can’t assume that your readers know what you assume everybody knows or that they still remember what was once explained to them.
  • Help the reader identify with science by using the human element or use your own experience to connect the reader to some mechanism that also touches his life — e.g. start with a vivid story from your childhood — and connect that to how the brain & memory work.
  • Reduce abstract principles to an image the reader can visualise.
  • Sequential writing a clear = easy to follow writing.
  • Pay attention to where you left the readers in the previous paragraph and what they want to know next.
Business Writing
  • Remember, readers identify with people, not with an abstraction like “profitability”, “utilisation”, and “implementation.”
    • “pre-feasibility studies are in the paperwork stage.” - Can’t be visualised, who is doing what.
  • Be natural — how we write and how we talk is how we define ourselves.
  • Example
    • ❌ "Evaluate procedures for the objectives were also established based on acceptable criteria.”
    • ✅ “At the end of the year, we will evaluate our progress.”
    • ✅ "we will see how well we have succeeded.”
Critics
  • Express what you observed and what you think.
Humour
  • One function of humour is to represent the writer as a victim or helpless. It’s a therapy for readers, enabling them to feel superior to the writer, or at least to identify with a fellow victim.
Clarity, Simplicity, Succinate and Humanity

Attitudes

The sound of your voice
  • Read what you've written aloud and see if you like the sound of your voice.
  • Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognise when they hear it on the page.
  • Cliches are the enemy of taste.
  • Writing that will endure tends to consist of short and strong words; words that sedate, words of three, four and five syllables.
  • After verbs, plain nouns are your strangest tools; they resonate with emotion.
The Tyranny of the Final Product
  • The writer, his eye on the finish line, never gives enough thought to how to run the race.
  • It all begins with intention. Figure out what you want to do and how you want to do it.
Choose words that have surprise, strength and precision.