On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction – by William Zinsser
Date read: 8/14/17. Recommendation: 8/10.
An essential for nonfiction writers. This is the only book I keep within reach as I'm writing. Zinsser advocates a lean, direct writing style. He outlines strategies for crafting a more effective story that resonates with readers. This includes how to cut down first drafts, rewrite, organize the flow of an article, develop your own voice, address your audience, handle humor, and avoid the danger of clichés. There's also a practical style guide for reference that addresses everything from the use of qualifiers (rather, quite, very) to specific punctuation marks (dash, colon, exclamation point). Every writer will be better for picking this up.
See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.
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 clarity and strength.
Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one cannot exist without the other.
Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it's because it is hard.
Clutter is the laborious phrase that has pushed out the short word that means the same thing.
Beware, then, of the long word that's no better than the short word: "assistance" (help), "numerous" (many), "facilitate" (ease), "individual" (man or woman), "remainder" (rest), "initial" (first), etc.
Don't inflate what needs no inflating: "with the possible exception of" (except), "due to the fact that" (because), "he totally lacked the ability to" (he couldn't).
Eliminate adverbs that carry same meaning as the verb: "smile happily" or "tall skyscraper."
Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author's voice.
Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it's beautiful?
Few people realize how badly they write. Nobody has shown them how much excess or murkiness has crept into their style and how it obstructs what they are trying to say.
Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself.
Writing is an intimate transaction between two people...Therefore I urge people to write in the first person: to use "I" and "me" and "we" and "us."
Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. 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.
"Who am I writing for?" 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.
You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for. If you lose the dullards back in the dust, you don't want them anyway.
Craft vs. attitude. Craft is a question of mastering a precise skill. The second is a question of how you use that skill to express your personality...First, work hard to master the tools. Simplify, prune and strive for order. Think of this as a mechanical act, and soon your sentences will become cleaner. Think of attitude as a creative act: the expressing of who you are. Relax and say what you want to say.
Never 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, please don't write it.
Writing is learned by imitation.
See if you can gain variety by reversing the order of a sentence, or by substituting a word that has freshness or oddity, or by altering the length of your sentences.
An occasional short sentence can carry a tremendous punch. It stays with the readers ear.
Aim for beautiful precision. Incorrect usage will lose you the readers you would most like to win.
That's where all careful writers ought to be–looking at every new piece of floatsam that washes up and asking "Do we need it?"
You learn to write by writing.
Unity is the anchor of good writing.
- Unity of pronoun: Are you going to write in the first person, as a participant, or in the third person or as an observer?
- Unity of tense
- Unity of mood
Consider how much you want to cover and what one point you want to make. There is no last word.
Therefore think small. Decide what corner of your subject you're going to bit off, and be content to cover it well and stop.
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.
Take special care with the last sentence of each paragraph–it's the crucial springboard to the next paragraph. Try to give that sentence an extra twist of humor or surprise...Make the reader smile and you've got him for at least one more paragraph.
Narrative is the oldest and most compelling method of holding someone's attention; everybody wants to be told a story. Always look for ways to convey your information in narrative form.
A good last sentence–or last paragraph–is a joy in itself. It gives the reader a lift, and it lingers when the article is over.
The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right.
Often it takes just a few sentences to wrap things up. Ideally they should encapsulate the idea of the piece and conclude with a sentence that jolts us with its fitness or unexpectedness.
Something I often do in my writing is to bring the story full circle–to strike at the end of an echo of a note that was sounded at the beginning. It gratifies my sense of symmetry, and it also pleases the reader, completing with its resonance the journey we set out of together.
-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.
-Use precise verbs (don't say he stepped down, say he was fired/retired/etc.)
-Most adverbs are unnecessary.
-Don't tell us that the radio blared loudly, that someone clenched their teeth tightly.
-Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs. So are adjectives and other parts of the speech.
-Most adjectives are also unnecessary.
-Like adverbs, they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don't stop to think that the concept is already in the noun.
-The adjectives that exists solely as decoration is a self-indulgence for the writer and a burden for the reader.
-Make your adjectives do work that needs to be done...They will have their proper power because you have learned to use adjectives sparsely.
-Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw: "a bit," "a little," "sort of," "kind of," "rather," "quite," "very," "too," "pretty much," "in a sense..." They dilute your style and your persuasiveness.
-Don't say you were a bit confused...Be confused.
-Good writing is lean and confident.
-"Very" is a useful word to achieve emphasis, but far more often it's clutter. There's no need to call someone very methodical. Either he is methodical or he isn't.
-Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of the reader's trust. Readers want a writer who believes in himself and in what he is saying. Don't diminish that belief. Don't be kind of bold. Be bold.
The Exclamation Point:
-Resist using it to notify the reader that you are making a joke or being ironic. "It never occurred to me that the water pistol might be loaded!" Readers are annoyed by your reminder that this was a comical moment. They are also robbed of the pleasure of finding it funny on their own. Humor is best achieved by understatement.
-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. "We decided to keep going–it was only 100 miles more and we could get there in time for dinner."
-The other use involved two dashes, which set apart a parenthetical thought within a longer 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."
-Learn to alert the reader as soon as possible to any change in mood from the previous sentence.
-Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with "but." If that's what you learned, unlearn it–there's no stronger word at the start. It announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is thereby primed for the change.
-Your style will be warmer and truer to your personality if you use contractions like "I'll" and "won't" and "can't."
-Only suggest avoiding 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.
That and Which:
-Always use "that" unless it makes your meaning ambiguous.
-In most situations, "that" is what you would naturally say and therefore what you should write.
-If your sentence needs a comma to achieve its precise meaning, it probably needs "which."
-A) "Take the shoes that are in the closet." This means take the shoes that are in the closet, not under the bed.
-B) "Take the shoes, which are in the closet." Only one pair of shoes is under discussion; the "which" usage tells you where they are.
-Don't string together two or three nouns where one noun–or better yet, one verb–will do.
-Nobody goes broke now, we have "money problem areas." It no longer rains, "we have precipitation activity.
-Keep your paragraphs short. Writing is visual–it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain.
-Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, whereas a long chunk of type can discourage a reader from even starting to read.
-Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it's where the game is either won or lost.
-Most rewriting consists of reshaping and tightening and refining the raw material you wrote on your first try.
Trust Your Material:
-The reader plays a major role in the act of writing and must be given room to play it. Don't annoy readers by over-explaining–by telling them something they already know or can figure out.
-Try not to use words like "surprisingly," "predictably," and "of course," which put a value on a fact before the reader encounters the fact. Trust your material.
Writing About Yourself:
When students say they have to write what the teacher wants, what they often mean is that they don't have anything to say–so meager is their after-school existence, bounded largely by television and the mall, two artificial versions of reality. Still, at any age, the physical act of writing is a powerful search mechanism.
Memoir isn't the summary of a life; it's a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.
Thoreau wrote seven different drafts of Walden in eight years; no American memoir was more painstakingly pieced together. To write a good memoir you must become the editor of your own life, imposing on an untidy sprawl of half-remembered events a narrative shape and an organizing idea.
Memoir is the art of inventing the truth.
Science and Technology:
Imagine science writing as an upside-down pyramid. Start at the bottom with the one fact a reader must know before he can learn any more.
Countless careers rise or fall on the ability or the inability of employees to state a set of facts, summarize a meeting or present an idea coherently.
Be natural. How we write and how we talk is how we define ourselves.
Humor is the secret weapon of the nonfiction writer. It's secret because so few writers realize that humor is often their best tool.
Trust the sophistication of readers who do know what you're doing, and don't worry about the rest.
You will touch more chords by finding what's funny in what you know to be true.
Don't strain for laughs; humor is built on surprise, and you can surprise the reader only so often.
The Sound of Your Voice:
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's enjoyable not only in its musical line but in its avoidance of sounds that would cheapen its tone: breeziness and condescension and cliches.
Much can be gained by knowing what to omit. Cliches, for instance, are the kiss of death. Writers who use them lack an instinct for what gives language its freshness.
Cliches are one of the things you should keep listening for when you rewrite and read your successive drafts aloud....Make an effort to replace them with fresh phrases of your own. Cliches are the enemy of taste.
Freshness is crucial. Taste chooses words that have surprise, strength and precision.
Never hesitate to imitate another writer. Imitation is part of the creative process for anyone learning an art or a craft.
Enjoyment, Fear and Confidence:
Writing is such lonely work that I try to keep myself cheered up. If something strikes me as funny in the act of writing, I throw it in just to amuse myself. If I think it's funny I assume a few other people will find it funny, and that seems to me to be a good day's work.
"The reader has to feel that the writer is feeling good...Even if he isn't." -S.J. Perelman
Writers have to jump-start themselves at the moment of performance.
Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women 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.
Any time you feel under-qualified and you're entering new territory, remember that sincerity and interest is what matters most. Your best credential is yourself.
Any time you can tell a story in the form of a quest or a pilgrimage you'll be ahead of the game.
A Writer's Decision:
Learning how to organize a long article is just as important as learning how to write a clear and pleasing sentence...Writing is linear and sequential, that logic is the glue that holds it together, that tension must be maintained from one sentence to the next, and from one paragraph to the next and from one section to the next, and that narrative is what should pull your readers along.
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 shorts ones, or even three.
Be yourself and your readers will follow you anywhere. Try to commit an act of writing and your readers will jump overboard to get away. Your product is you.
Writing well means believing in your writing and believing in yourself, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel. You will write only as well as you make yourself write.