Wednesday, March 21, 2012

On Writing Well

I promised that I would write a bit more about William Zinsser's On Writing Well, a book I read a couple of months ago. I intended to include the parts that struck me the most in each chapter. I got as far as Chapter 10 before I had to return the book to the office library. Meh. But I think these are enough to convince any writer to read the book.

Chapter 1: The Transaction
“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.”

Chapter 2: 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.”

Chapter 3: Clutter
“Take the adjective ‘personal,' as in ‘a personal friend of mine,’ ‘his personal feeling’ or ‘her personal physician.’ It’s typical of hundreds of words that can be eliminated. The personal friend has come in to the language to distinguish him or her from the business friend, thereby debasing both language and friendship. As for the personal physician, that’s the man or woman summoned to the dressing room of a stricken actress so she won’t have to be treated by an impersonal physician assigned to the theater. Someday I’d like to see that person identified as ‘her doctor.’ Physicians are physicians, friends are friends. The rest is clutter.”

“Is there any way to recognize clutter at a glance? Here’s a device my students at Yale found helpful. I would put brackets around every component in a piece of writing that wasn’t doing useful work. Often just one word got bracketed: the unnecessary preposition appended to a verb (‘order up’), or the adverb that carries the same meaning as the verb (‘smile happily’), or the adjective that states a known fact (‘tall skyscraper’).”

Chapter 4: Style
“…you will be impatient to find a ‘style'—to embellish the plain words so that readers will recognize you as someone special. You will reach for gaudy similes and tinseled adjectives, as if ‘style’ were something you could buy at the style store and drape onto your words in bright decorator colors. (Decorator colors are the colors that decorators come in.) There is no style store; 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. At first glance the formerly bald man looks young and even handsome. But at second glance—and with a toupee there’s always a second glance—he doesn’t look quite right. The problem is not that he doesn’t look well groomed; he does, and we can only admire the wigmaker’s skill. The point is that he doesn’t look like himself.”

Chapter 5: The Audience
“‘Who am I writing for?’

“It’s a fundamental question, and it has a fundamental answer: You are writing for yourself.”

Chapter 6: Words
“What is ‘journalese’? It’s a quilt of instant words patched together out of other parts of speech. Adjectives are used as nouns (‘greats,’ ‘notables’). Nouns are used as verbs (‘to host’), or they are chopped off to form verbs (‘enthuse,’ ‘emote’), or they are padded to form verbs (‘beef up,’ ‘put teeth into’). This is a world where eminent people are ‘famed’ and their associates are ‘staffers,’ where the future is always ‘upcoming’ and someone is forever ‘firing off’ a note. Nobody in America has sent a note or a memo or a telegram in years. Famed diplomat Condoleeza Rice, who hosts foreign notables to beef up morale of top State Department staffers, sits down and fires off a lot of notes. Notes that are fired off are always fired in anger and from a sitting position. What the weapon is I’ve never found.”

Chapter 7: Usage
“…Guardians of usage are doing only half their job if they merely keep the language from becoming sloppy. Any dolt can rule that the suffix ‘wise,’ as in ‘healthwise,’ is doltwise, or that being ‘rather unique’ is no more possible than being rather pregnant. The other half of the job is to help the language grow by welcoming any immigrant that will bring strength or color.”

Chapter 8: Unity
“…every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before. Not two thoughts, or five—just one.”

Chapter 9: The Lead and the Ending
“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.”

“The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right.”

Chapter 10: Bits & Pieces
“Most adverbs are unnecessary. You will clutter your sentence and annoy the reader if you choose a verb that has a specific meaning and then add an adverb that carries the same meaning. Don’t tell us that the radio blared loudly; ‘blare’ connotes loudness. Don’t write that someone clenched his teeth tightly; there’s no other way to clench teeth.”

“There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.”

“Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost.”


  1. "Never use a big word where a diminutive one will do."

    I love that tip because diminutive is such a big word and yet, it fits =)

  2. And another thing: This is why we have jobs, Tish. We make writers and what they write sing!

  3. got my soft copy now! weeeh!thanks for sharing about this... can't afford to go back to school to learn more about writing, but who says we have to when we've got great books :)

  4. Hi Tish, I nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award, go grab it from my blog!

  5. Frances, the book has helped me edit! I used to be daunted by the task of cutting articles down to half (when writers don't stick to the word count), but it's gotten (somewhat) easier.

    Cham, enjoy! Let me know what you think. I love the part about travel writing. I read it out loud to a friend and we were both just chuckling through it.

    Hey, Jai, thank you!:)

  6. “Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost.”

    This is my one weakness, and I am trying to do whatever I can to rewrite but the lazies get to me and I end up with a weak prose.

    I need to be able to realize this internally.

    Thanks so much for sharing! These are all now in a notepad on my desktop.

  7. the way he wrote his piece shows he has authority on the topic..never thought the topic could be written in such an entertaining way :)

  8. After reading this book, I find myself rewriting even more--even one-paragraph bits to accompany a photo.

  9. I'm still in the middle of reading this book :) It's made so much practical sense in writing. I've used a number of tips to help me in my everyday blogposts :) Thanks for your tip! I wouldn't have picked this book up if not for your post :)


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