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On Writing Well Summary – William Zinsser

Arthur Worsley
by Arthur Worsley
M.A. Psychology, Oxford. McKinsey Alum. Founder & Editor at TAoL.
10 MINUTE READ
On Writing Well (1976)
The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
TAoL Rating: Book Rating: 5/5 5.0

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One-Sentence Summary

On Writing Well is a book so brimming with literary wisdom that it feels like you're clutching a living brain. Writing, about writing, for writers - by writer, editor, critic, teacher and captain of the craft, William Zinsser. (336 pages)

Note: This On Writing Well summary is part of an ongoing project to summarise the Best Books on Writing of all time.

On Writing Well Review

“On Writing Well” is a book so brimming with wisdom that reading it feels like you’re clutching a living brain.

This is writing, about writing, for writers, by a captain of the craft. Which – whether your medium is books, articles, reports, emails, messages, or status updates – makes “On Writing Well” a book for us all.

But it isn’t William Zinsser‘s 70 years of journalism, writing, editing, criticism and teaching that makes this book so special. It’s not the plethora of practical pointers, nor the abundance of anecdotes, quotes, examples, and references that colour them along the way. It isn’t even the mini-guides on writing about people, travel, memoir, science, business, sports, arts, and humour.

What makes this book special is Zinsser‘s humanity and warmth. This is writing at its best, and when you learn that Zinsser passed away just recently, aged 92, it feels oddly like losing the contact details of someone you were just getting to know.

I found it difficult to crunch “On Writing Well” and even harder to write a worthy introduction. I’ve tried to capture the major points below. In doing so I’ve omitted some of Zinsser‘s more granular tips, much of the specific guidance from the mini-guides, and all of his warmth, charm, and charisma.

“On Writing Well” is a book that should be experienced first hand. But don’t read it because you’re a writer. Read it for the thrill of meeting a master at his craft. Read it because “quality is a reward of its own.”

On Writing Well Summary

Writing Well Is a Craft; Anyone Can Learn It.

Like learning any skill, writing well needs the right: Mindset, Motivation, Practice (Quantity and Quality), and Opportunity.

Mindset: Anyone can learn to write well. But it will take time and effort and you will make mistakes. Persevere and remember: “Your only contest is with yourself”.

Motivation: Write well for the reader but write about things you find interesting. You will find it easier to persevere with and enjoy and your energy will come across in your writing.

Practice (Quantity): “You learn to write by writing”, so “establish a daily schedule and stick to it” and remember: “the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself. He is also going broke.”

Practice (Quality): First strip your writing down, then build it back up. Practice purposefully to master the basics. Work at each component, form, and style. Work on your weaknesses and become obsessive over detail: “No writing decision is too small to be worth a large expenditure of time.”

Opportunity: Attend courses and read about learning to write. Seek other writers, teachers and editors. Study, note, and imitate the masters: “Find the best writers in the fields that interest you and read their work aloud” and “never hesitate to imitate another writer. Imitation is part of the creative process for anyone learning an art or a craft.”

Good Writing Is Clear, Simple, Concise, and Human.

Be Clear.

“Give the reader a narrative flow he can follow with no trouble from beginning to end.”

  • The reader should find it easy to follow.
  • The writing should be structured, linear, flowing, emphatic, and familiar.
  • The writer should set a single intention, research extensively, think clearly, structure carefully and use analogies.

Be Simple.

“A simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking; a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker.”

  • The reader should find it easy to read.
  • The writing should contain short and simple paragraphs, sentences, and words.
  • The writer should test by reading aloud. Always remember the reader and shorten words where possible.

Be Concise.

“The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”

  • The reader should find each point quick to understand.
  • The writing should use words that are surprising, strong, and precise in their meaning.
  • The writer should eliminate clutter (“Good writing is lean and emphatic.”), avoid cliché and jargon, and commit (“Don’t hedge with little timidities.”)

Be Human.

“Writing is an intimate transaction between two people… and it will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity.”

  • The reader should be able to relate to both content and author.
  • The writing should feel personal, energetic, specific, and concrete.
  • The writer should write like a person, tell a story, use quotes, use detail to illustrate the general, and have fun.

Good Writing Grows From Good Process.

Set intention.

  • “Decide what single point you want to leave in the reader’s mind”.
  • Decide how you plan to put it there.

Research.

“Readers should always feel that you know more about a subject than you put in writing.”

  • Go after your research; if it interests you then “get on the plane”: travel to the next town, county or country to find it.
  • “Always collect more material than you will use.”
  • “Look for your material everywhere”, not just in the obvious places.
  • And follow surprises. “Surprise is the most refreshing element in non-fiction writing. If something surprises you it will also surprise – and delight – the people you are writing for.”

Think.

“Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.”

  • Select: Use less than you have.
  • Reduce: Explain big by thinking small. Tell a story.
  • Organise: Clear writing <==> Clear thinking.
  • “Your subconscious mind does more writing than you think” so, “never go to sleep without a request to [it].” — Thomas Edison

Write.

  • Go easy on yourself (“The first draft of anything is shit.” — Earnest Hemmingway)
  • Put yourself into the writing by always writing the first draft in the first person (then go back and remove the ‘I’s if you must).
  • Trust and adapt to your material: “Don’t become the prisoner of a preconceived plan”.
  • When you get stuck ask yourself “What is this piece really about?”

Rewrite.

  • Read aloud; remove anything you wouldn’t actually say.
  • Edit on paper; process the full composition with a pen, then apply edits.
  • Continuously strengthen, tighten and make the language more precise.
  • Repeat. Repeat. Repeat: “Rewriting is the essence of writing well; it’s where the game is won or lost.”

Defend.

  • A good editor brings an “objective eye” and “can’t be thanked fervently enough”.
  • But defend against direct edits to (a) style and (b) content: “If you allow your distinctiveness to be edited out, you will lose one of your major virtues.”

The Anatomy of Writing Well.

Words.

“Writing that endures consists of words that are short and strong.”

  • Use short words over long words.
  • Use verbs over nouns.
  • Verbs: Use active verbs over passive verbs.
    • “The ground was covered in leaves.” → “Leaves covered the ground”
  • Nouns: Make people act, not concepts.
    • The first reaction is often laughter.” → “People often laugh.”
  • Use adverbs only where they change meaning. (See “How to Cleanse Clutter”)
  • Use adjectives only where they surprise or inform.  (See “How to Cleanse Clutter”)
  • Use neutral over sexist or gendered language. (See “How to Side-step Sexism”)
  • “Get in the habit of using dictionaries” and a thesaurus*.

* If you’re looking for an immediate next action: why not set up a good dictionary and thesaurus on your computer?

Sentences.

“Readers read with their eyes. But in fact, they hear what they are reading far more than you realise.”

  • Make sentences short and rhythmic.
    • Within: “Rhythm and alliteration are vital to every sentence.”
    • Between: “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.”
  • Make sentences flow.
    • Remember where you left the reader in the last sentence.
    • Indicate mood changes (e.g., now, but, later) early in the current sentence.
    • Build suspense for the next sentence.
  • Make sentences unique (advance, don’t restate).
  • Remember: “a difficult problem in a sentence can [often] be solved by simply getting rid of it.”

Paragraphs. 

“Writing is visual – it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain.”

  • Make paragraphs short (but not so short they interrupt a thought).
  • Make paragraphs structured, linear, and flowing: “Every paragraph should amplify the one that preceded it.”
  • Make paragraphs relevant to the composition’s intention (i.e., stick to the point).

The lead.

  • Remember, “the most important sentence in any article is the first one.”
  • First “capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading.”
  • Then “tell the reader why the piece was written and why he ought to read it.”

The close.

  • “Give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did to your first.”
  • Don’t summarise or restate. Instead, “bring the story full circle – strike an echo of a note that was sounded at the beginning.”
  • Remember “the perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right.”
  • And don’t sell past the close: “When you’re ready to stop, stop.”

How to Conduct Interviews.

“Whatever form of non-fiction you write, it will come alive in proportion to the number of quotes you can weave into it as you go along.”

Find a subject:

  • “Look for your material everywhere, not just by reading the obvious sources and interviewing the obvious people.”
  • Don’t be afraid to ask. “Most men and women lead lives, if not of quiet desperation, at least of desperate quietness.”

Before the interview:

  • “Never go into an interview without doing whatever homework you can.”
  • “Make a list of likely questions.”

During the interview:

  • Use pen(cil) and paper (a recording device is usually unnecessary).
  • Put the other person at ease (“Don’t take your pad out right away”).
  • Take the best notes you can (you’ll improve with time).
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for a moment if you need to catch up.

After the interview:

  • Stay alert: “Often you’ll get your best material after you put your pencil away, in the chitchat of leave-taking.”
  • Refresh and complete your notes as soon as possible.
  • Type up your notes when you get home.

As you organise your material:

  • Do: Cut, juggle and join quotes to link thoughts and improve flow.
  • Don’t: Fabricate quotes or surmise what you think someone said or meant.
  • Instead: Call and check. Ask them to rephrase until you understand.
  • If you don’t get what you need the first time, go back.

When you write up the interview:

  • Lead: Who is the interviewee and why should the reader care?
  • Throughout: Balance your words and the interviewee’s words.
  • Avoid starting with “He said” or struggling for synonyms.

How to Side-Step Sexism.

Avoid “the hundreds of words that carry an offensive meaning or some overtone of judgement” e.g., words that:

  • Patronise: “gal”
  • Imply second-class status: “poetess”
  • Imply second-class roles: “house-wife”
  • Diminish: “the girls”
  • Demean: “lady lawyer”
  • Are deliberately sexual: “divorcée”, “coed”, “blonde”

Rephrase “more damaging – and more subtle- usages that treat women as possessions of the family male” e.g.,

  • “Early settlers pushed west with their wives and children.” → “Pioneer families…” or “Pioneer couples…”

Use alternatives for sexist nouns.

  • Find other terms: “chairman” → “chair”, “spokesman” → “representative”
  • But avoid makeshift terms e.g., “chairman” !→ “chairperson”, “spokesman” !→ “spokeswoman”

Dodge “He”, “him”, and “his”.

  • Use the plural → “they”, “them”, and “their”, but “only in small doses” as “they weaken writing because they are less specific than the singular”.
  • Use “or” → “him or her” but again “only sparingly” (but never “he/she”, “the slant has no place in good English”).
  • Use “we” for “he” or “our” and “the” for “his” in some styles of writing.
  • Use “you” to address the writer directly in other styles of writing.

But in all cases, don’t compromise “flow” for “correctness” – use “he” if there is no good alternative.

How to Cleanse Clutter.

Remove:

  • Sentences that rephrase something already stated.
  • Points that tell the reader something they already know or can work out themselves.
  • Technical jargon.
  • Clichés.

Simplify euphemisms (esp. in business and politics).

  • “Depressed socioeconomic area” → “Slum”
  • “Waste disposal personnel” → “Garbage collectors”
  • “Volume reduction unit” → “Town dump”
  • “Volume-related production-schedule adjustment” → “Plant shutdown”
  • “Impacted the ground prematurely” → “Crashed”
  • “A negative cashflow position” → “Insolvent”

Deflate inflated phrases.

  • “Referred to as” → “Called”
  • “With the possible exception of” → “Except”
  • “Due to the fact that” → “Because”
  • “He totally lacked the ability to” → “He couldn’t”
  • “Until such a time as” → “Until”
  • “For the purpose of” → “For”
  • “Are you experiencing any pain?” → “Does it hurt?”

Prune meaningless bloat.

  • “I might add”
  • “It should be pointed out”
  • “It is interesting to note”
  • “It will interest you” (if it is interesting, let it be interesting)
  • “Surprisingly” (if it is surprising, let it surprise)
  • “Of course” (if something is obvious, omit it)

Omit qualifiers.

  • “A bit”
  • “Sort of”
  • “Very”
  • “Too”
  • “Kind of”
  • “Rather”
  • “Quite”
  • “In a sense”

Get rid of redundant adjectives, adverbs and prepositions.

  • “A personal friend” → “A friend”
  • “A tall skyscraper” → “A skyscraper”
  • “Smile happily” → “Smile”
  • “Order up” → “Order”

Shorten long words.

  • “Assistance” → “Help”
  • “Numerous” → “Many”
  • “Facilitate” → “Ease”
  • “Individual” → “Man” or “Woman”
  • “Remainder” → “Rest”
  • “Initial” → “First”
  • “Implement” → “Do”
  • “Sufficient” → “Enough”
  • “Attempt” → “Try”
  • “Currently”, “Today”, “At the present time” → “Now”
  • “Presently” → “Soon”

Avoid fad words.

  • Paradigm
  • Parameter
  • Prioritise
  • Potentialise
  • Dialogue (as a verb)
  • Interface (with someone)

On Writing Well Contents

On Writing Well has 25 chapters in 4 parts…

Introduction

Part 1: Principles

  1. The Transaction
  2. Simplicity
  3. Clutter
  4. Style
  5. The Audience
  6. Words
  7. Usage

Part 2: Methods

  1. Unity
  2. The Lead and the Ending
  3. Bits & Pieces

Part 3: Forms

  1. Nonfiction as Literature
  2. Writing About People: The Interview
  3. Writing About Places: The Travel Article
  4. Writing About Yourself: The Memoir
  5. Science and Technology
  6. Business Writing: Writing in Your Job
  7. Sports
  8. Writing About the Arts: Critics and Columnists
  9. Humor

Part 4: Attitudes

  1. The Sound of Your Voice
  2. Enjoyment, Fear and Confidence
  3. The Tyranny of the Final Product
  4. A Writer’s Decisions
  5. Writing Family History and Memoir
  6. Write as Well as You Can

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Read More: 5 Books Like On Writing Well

Enjoyed this On Writing Well summary? You might enjoy the rest of the books on these lists of the Best Books on Writing of all time.

And in the meantime...

Here are 5 top books like On Writing Well...

1. Politics and the English Language - George Orwell
Published 1946 // 20 pages // Rated 4.3 over 5,700 reviews on Goodreads
2. The Hero With a Thousand Faces - Joseph Campbell
Published 1949 // 416 pages // Rated 4.2 over 29,100 reviews on Goodreads
Books Like On Wrtiting Well: The Elements of Style
3. The Elements of Style - William Strunk Jr. (FREE Summary)
The Elements of Style is a short, prescriptive classic filled with good advice on writing great (American) English while omitting needless words - by professor and author William Strunk Jr.
Published 1918 // 105 pages // Rated 4.1 over 82,600 reviews on Goodreads
4. The Power of Myth - Joseph Campbell
Published 1988 // 320 pages // Rated 4.3 over 41,400 reviews on Goodreads
5. On Writing - Stephen King
A Memoir of the Craft
Published 2000 // 320 pages // Rated 4.3 over 248,200 reviews on Goodreads

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Arthur Worsley
I founded TAoL to discover and share the best wisdom on how to live long and prosper. Before that I studied Psychology, Philosophy & Physiology at Oxford and consulted at McKinsey. Still curious? Learn more or take my FREE productivity quiz.

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