On Writing Well

On Writing Well, first published in 1976, is a popular nonfiction writing guide by William Zinsser. I purchased this a few months ago along with Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which is the classic style guide for writing, and have found that the two books complement each other well.

On Writing Well

Zinsser’s guide, however, is far more comprehensive. True, The Elements of Style is kept short, concise, forcible for a reason, but On Writing Well provides a broader scope of guidelines, tips, examples, and specific instruction.

On Writing Well contains four sections: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes. The first and last are similar, and discuss what an author does, is bound to do, and should do in high-level decisions: not the grammar, but the overall writing. The second resembles The Elements of Style, as they both discuss writing style and include bits and pieces on mechanics and proper grammar. The gem of this book, however, is the third section, Forms, which discusses different types of writing and how different writers approach their respective tasks differently—and similarly.

Zinsser writes about writing. In fact, in one section he displays an excerpt from a draft of an earlier version of the book, and then analyzes that, so he writes about writing about writing. And because I’m writing about this book, I suppose I am writing about writing about writing about writing. (And if I write about that last sentence, as I am right now, I would be writing about writing about writing about writing about writing.)

Some useful quotations from On Writing Well:

Simplify, simplify.

Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they don’t know.

Few people realize how badly they write.

The Elements of Style, a book every writer should read once a year…

You learn to write by writing. It’s a truism, but what makes it a truism is that it’s true.

All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem.

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. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the “lead.”

Most adverbs are unnecessary.

Most adjectives are also unnecessary.

Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with “but.” If that’s what happened, 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.

This is a new American disease…. Today, as many as four or five concept nouns will attach themselves to each other, like a molecule chain. Here’s a brilliant specimen I recently found: “Communication facilitation skills development intervention.” Not a person in sight, or working verb. I think it’s a program to help students write better.

All these are from the first two sections. Three and four are less compact and less universal, and thereby can’t be quoted as well as the first two. Nonetheless, they cover important material and are a good read.

2 thoughts on “On Writing Well

  1. I think you did a great job summarizing the book. There are many great books out there on how to write well but based on your summary and description of the breakdown of the book, I think I’ll pick this one because of how detailed it seems to be.


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