On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Published: 2022-06-05 in

Takeaways

  • Writing is the art of using the English language in a way that will achieve the most strength and least clutter.
  • Must constantly ask yourself, 'What am I trying to say?' and say that.
  • School has taught us to use fancy words, jargon, and long transition phrases. Basically anything you learned in school about how to write, do the opposite. People want to know what you're saying in the least amount of words possible.
  • Get rid of every word that doesn't need to be there.
  • Clutter is the language people speak when they're too scared to say what they mean.
  • Never use, "I think," "I want to note," "I believe," etc. We know you think it, you're writing it.
  • When you're re-reading your rough draft, try bracketing the words that aren't doing anything. If the sentence still makes sense, ditch those words in the final draft.
  • Style can't be taught or learned, but don't force yourself to sound fancy.
  • Writing is all about sounding personal, but if you want to stay out of the first person, use "I" in the rough draft and replace them in the final draft.
  • There is no audience, you're writing for yourself.
  • If you find something amusing, add it. If you want to go on a tangent, do it. Again, writing is all about sounding personal. Someone has probably written something the way you have, but not with your style, examples, or tangents.
  • Cliche phrases, metaphors, etc., are to never be used. It's lazy writing.
  • Use Websters Dictionary, Second College Edition, Websters Dictionary of Synonyms, and Rogets Thesaurus to make sure the word you chose actually means what you said it does. You can save a lot of space simply by using the right word.
  • Use new words if they fill a good need and help you express something you otherwise couldn't. If they don't, never use them again.
  • Separate usage from jargon.
  • Before WWII, people wanted novels and stories. But after Pearl Harbor, people just wanted to know what the hell was going on. They wanted facts, quotes, numbers, etc.
  • Before you start writing, be sure to choose which tone you want to use.
  • Ask yourself:
    • How will I address the reader?
    • What tense will I use?
    • What style do I want to write in?
  • Every piece of non-fiction should leave the reader with one, just one, provocative thought he didn't have before he read the piece.
  • Try to give an extra twist to the last sentence in each paragraph. For example:

    *I've often wondered what goes into a hot dog. Now I wish I didn't.

    My trouble began when the Department of Agriculture published...– In other words, can a chickenfurter find happiness in the land of the frank?*

  • Always collect more material than you think you will use and don't lead the reader get away. Make sure each sentence begs the reader to read the next.
  • If you've explained the facts and made the point you want to make, just stop.
  • Pick something crazy or a quote that's funny to surprise the readers with as the last sentence to your piece.
  • If a place comes to you easy, don't use it. It's most likely a cliche.
  • Eliminate every fact that is a known attribute. You don't need to use a simile to explain how hot and dry Death Valley was, people know that.
  • Distill the important information from the immaterial.

Verbs

  • Use short words. Of the 701 words in Lincoln's inaugural address, 505 are one syllable.

Adverbs

  • Most adverbs are unnecessary.
  • Don't write, "The radio blared loudly." Blared means it was loud.

Adjectives

  • Most are also unnecessary. "Brown dirt." Duh, dirt is brown.

Qualifiers

  • Don't use "sort of," "kind of," "a little," etc.
  • Tell the reader as early as you can that you're switching gears.
  • Use "but," "yet," "nevertheless," at the beginning of the sentence to replace what the reader was about to do.
  • Despite what you were taught in school, you can start a sentence with "but."
  • Newspaper paragraphs shouldn't have more than 2-3 sentences.
  • The quickest fix to any sentence is to get rid of it.

Science and Technical Writing

  • If you're struggling trying to come up with simple writing, write about how something works. This is great practice for ordering your thoughts sequentially.
  • Imagine technical writing to be like an upside-down pyramid. Start with the first fact the reader must know to understand something and follow that pattern.

Business and Professional Writing

  • Say what you want to say. Don't murk it up with big words trying to sound "professional."
  • The way to warm up almost any institution is to locate the missing "I" in the memos, reports, documents, writings, and so on.

Quotes

  • "The man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is a fool."
  • "Ultimately, the product that any writer has to sell is not his subject, but himself."
  • "The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components."
  • "A clear sentence is no accident."
  • "Writing improves with the direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out that shouldn't be there" (I recognize the irony of this.)
  • "Clutter is the official language used by corporations to hide its mistakes."
  • "Leaders who bob and weave [with their words], don't inspire confidence."
  • "Surprise is one of the most refreshing commodities in writing."
  • "Beauty as we understand it, and as we admire it in nature, is never arbitrary."
  • "A simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking; A muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too dumb or too lazy to organize his thoughts."