Abhinav's Notes
2021-01-26 Edit

Highlights for On Writing Well by William Zinsser

  1. The Transaction
  2. Simplicity
  3. Clutter
  4. Style
  5. The Audience
  6. Words
  7. Usage
  8. Unity
  9. The Lead and the Ending
  10. Bits & Pieces
  11. Nonfiction as Literature
  12. Writing About People: The Interview
  13. Writing About Places: The Travel Article
  14. Writing About Yourself: The Memoir
  15. Science and Technology
  16. Business Writing: Writing in Your Job
  17. Sports
  18. Writing About the Arts: Critics and Columnists
  19. Humor
  20. The Sound of Your Voice
  21. Enjoyment, Fear and Confidence
  22. The Tyranny of the Final Product
  23. A Writer’s Decisions
  24. Writing Family History and Memoir
  25. Write as Well as You Can

PART I Principles

1. The Transaction

Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is.

2. Simplicity

the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.

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

Thinking clearly is a conscious act that writers must force on themselves, as if they were working on any other project that requires logic.

3. Clutter

Clutter is the laborious phrase that has pushed out the short word that means the same thing.

Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.

Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away.

4. Style

The point is that you have to strip your writing down before you can build it back up.

Style is tied to the psyche, and writing has deep psychological roots.

5. The Audience

You are writing for yourself.

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.

Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation.

6. Words

You’ll never make your mark as a writer unless you develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive.

The Thesaurus is to the writer what a rhyming dictionary is to the songwriter—a reminder of all the choices—and you should use it with gratitude.

Also bear in mind, when you’re choosing words and stringing them together, how they sound.

Good writers of prose must be part poet, always listening to what they write.

7. Usage

formal syntax can’t hold the fort forever against a speaker’s more comfortable way of getting the same thing said—and it shouldn’t.

Good usage, to me, consists of using good words if they already exist—as they almost always do—to express myself clearly and simply to someone else.

PART II Methods

8. Unity

Unity is the anchor of good writing.

ask yourself some basic questions before you start. For example: “In what capacity am I going to address the reader?” (Reporter? Provider of information? Average man or woman?) “What pronoun and tense am I going to use?” “What style?” (Impersonal reportorial? Personal but formal? Personal and casual?) “What attitude am I going to take toward the material?” (Involved? Detached? Judgmental? Ironic? Amused?) “How much do I want to cover?” “What one point do I want to make?”

writers who doggedly pursue every last fact will find themselves pursuing the rainbow and never settling down to write.

every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before.

Trust your material if it’s taking you into terrain you didn’t intend to enter but where the vibrations are good.

9. The Lead and the Ending

Readers want to know—very soon—what’s in it for them.

your lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading.

take special care with the last sentence of each paragraph—it’s the crucial springboard to the next paragraph.

you should always collect more material than you will use. Every article is strong in proportion to the surplus of details from which you can choose the few that will serve you best.

Another moral is to look for your material everywhere, not just by reading the obvious sources and interviewing the obvious people.

Our daily landscape is thick with absurd messages and portents. Notice them. They not only have social significance; they are often just quirky enough to make a lead that’s different from everybody else’s.

What is pulling us into this article is the steady accumulation of facts that have pathos and faded glamour.

Always look for ways to convey your information in narrative form.

You should give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did to your first.

For the nonfiction writer, the simplest way of putting this into a rule is: when you’re ready to stop, stop.

Something I often do in my writing is to bring the story full circle—to strike at the end an echo of a note that was sounded at the beginning.

10. Bits & Pieces

Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb.

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.

Most adjectives are also unnecessary.

The adjective that exists solely as decoration is a self-indulgence for the writer and a burden for the reader.

Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw.

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

Don’t use it [the Exclamation Point] unless you must to achieve a certain effect.

Humor is best achieved by understatement, and there’s nothing subtle about an exclamation point.

it [the Semicolon] should be used sparingly by modern writers of nonfiction.

One [use of the Dash] is to amplify or justify in the second part of the sentence a thought you stated in the first part.

The other use involves two dashes, which set apart a parenthetical thought within a longer sentence.

Learn to alert the reader as soon as possible to any change in mood from the previous sentence.

Don’t start a sentence with “however”—it hangs there like a wet dishrag. And don’t end with “however”—by that time it has lost its howeverness.

Always use “that” unless it makes your meaning ambiguous.

A high proportion of “which” usages narrowly describe, or identify, or locate, or explain, or otherwise qualify the phrase that preceded the comma.

Nouns that express a concept are commonly used in bad writing instead of verbs that tell what somebody did.

Much of what you see and hear will come back, having percolated for days or months or even years through your subconscious mind, just when your conscious mind, laboring to write, needs it.

Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it.

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.

A succession of tiny paragraphs is as annoying as a paragraph that’s too long.

clear writing is the result of a lot of tinkering.

Much of it [rewriting] consists of making sure you’ve given the reader a narrative flow he can follow with no trouble from beginning to end.

The longer I work at the craft of writing, the more I realize that there’s nothing more interesting than the truth.

The reader plays a major role in the act of writing and must be given room to play it.


11. Nonfiction as Literature

If nonfiction is where you do your best writing, or your best teaching of writing, don’t be buffaloed into the idea that it’s an inferior species.

12. Writing About People: The Interview

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

The interview itself is one of the most popular nonfiction forms, so you should master it early.

Choose, in short, someone who touches some corner of the reader’s life.

Never go into an interview without doing whatever homework you can.

Consider using a tape recorder in situations where you might violate the cultural integrity of the people you’re interviewing.

Your ethical duty to the person being interviewed is to present his position accurately.

try to achieve a balance between what the subject is saying in his words and what you are writing in your words.

When you use a quotation, start the sentence with it. Don’t lead up to it with a vapid phrase saying what the man said.

don’t strain to find synonyms for “he said.” Don’t make your man assert, aver and expostulate just to avoid repeating “he said,”.

Conducting a good interview is finally related to the character and personality of the writer, because the person you’re interviewing will always know more about the subject than you do.

it’s just not possible to write a competent interview without some juggling and eliding of quotes.

When you get people talking, handle what they say as you would handle a valuable gift.

13. Writing About Places: The Travel Article

People and places are the twin pillars on which most nonfiction is built.

As a writer you must keep a tight rein on your subjective self—the traveler touched by new sights and sounds and smells—and keep an objective eye on the reader.

If a phrase comes to you easily, look at it with deep suspicion.

Your main task as a travel writer is to find the central idea of the place you’re dealing with.

It [Travel] should generate a whole constellation of ideas about how men and women work and play, raise their children, worship their gods, live and die.

what brings a place alive is human activity: people doing the things that give a locale its character.

If you’re writing about places that are sacred or meaningful, leave the waxing to someone else.

14. Writing About Yourself: The Memoir

Of all the subjects available to you as a writer, the one you know best is yourself.

If you’re a writer, give yourself permission to tell us who you are.

If you consciously write for a teacher or for an editor, you’ll end up not writing for anybody. If you write for yourself, you’ll reach the people you want to write for.

Write about yourself, by all means, with confidence and with pleasure. But see that all the details—people, places, events, anecdotes, ideas, emotions—are moving your story steadily along.

Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.

One secret of the art is detail. Any kind of detail will work—a sound or a smell or a song title—as long as it played a shaping role in the portion of your life you have chosen to distill.

The crucial ingredient in memoir is, of course, people. […] Finally you must summon back the men and women and children who notably crossed your life.

15. Science and Technology

Science, demystified, is just another nonfiction subject. Writing, demystified, is just another way for scientists to transmit what they know.

Describing how a process works is valuable for two reasons. It forces you to make sure you know how it works. Then it forces you to take the reader through the same sequence of ideas and deductions that made the process clear to you.

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. The second sentence broadens what was stated first, making the pyramid wider, and the third sentence broadens the second, so that you can gradually move beyond fact into significance and speculation.

You can take much of the mystery out of science writing by helping the reader to identify with the scientific work being done.

Another personal method is to weave a scientific story around someone else.

Another way to help your readers understand unfamiliar facts is to relate them to sights they are familiar with.

Another way of making science accessible is to write like a person and not like a scientist.

16. Business Writing: Writing in Your Job

We are suspicious of pretentiousness, of all the fad words that the social scientists have coined to avoid making themselves clear to ordinary mortals.

[In the readers of business writing] There is a deep yearning for human contact and a resentment of bombast.

Actually a simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking; a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too arrogant, or too dumb, or too lazy to organize his thoughts.

If you work for an institution, whatever your job, whatever your level, be yourself when you write. You will stand out as a real person among the robots.

17. Sports

athletes are men and women who become part of our lives during the season, acting out our dreams or filling some other need for us, and we want that bond to be honored. Hold the hype and give us heroes who are believable.

The little boys—and girls—who once played those games grow up to be readers of the sports pages, and in their imagination they are still young, still on the field and the court and the rink, still playing those games.

18. Writing About the Arts: Critics and Columnists

As a reviewer your job is more to report than to make an aesthetic judgment.

critics should like—or, better still, love—the medium they are reviewing.

Tell readers just enough to let them decide whether it’s the kind of story they tend to enjoy, but not so much that you’ll kill their enjoyment.

Cite a few examples and let your readers weigh them on their own fascination scale.

Good criticism needs a lean and vivid style to express what you observed and what you think.

Criticism is a serious intellectual act. It tries to evaluate serious works of art and to place them in the context of what has been done before in that medium or by that artist.

Therefore if you want to be a critic, steep yourself in the literature of the medium you hope to make your specialty.

Critics should be among the first to notify us when the truths we hold to be self-evident cease to be true.

What is crucial for you as the writer is to express your opinion firmly. Don’t cancel its strength with last-minute evasions and escapes.

19. Humor

if you’re trying to write humor, almost everything you do is serious.

Humorists operate on a deeper current than most people suspect. They must be willing to go against the grain, to say what the populace and the President may not want to hear.

most humor, however freakish it may seem, is based on fundamental truths. Humor is not a separate organism that can survive on its own frail metabolism. It’s a special angle of vision granted to certain writers who already write good English.

A humorist who deals with ordinary life never runs out of material.

In short, our class began by striving first for humor and hoping to wing a few truths along the way. We ended by striving for truth and hoping to add humor along the way. Ultimately we realized that the two are intertwined.

PART IV Attitudes

20. The Sound of Your Voice

My commodity as a writer, whatever I’m writing about, is me. And your commodity is you. Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page.

the effortless style is achieved by strenuous effort and constant refining.

Write with respect for the English language at its best—and for readers at their best. If you’re smitten by the urge to try the breezy style, read what you’ve written aloud and see if you like the sound of your voice.

For writers and other creative artists, knowing what not to do is a major component of taste.

Taste is an invisible current that runs through writing, and you should be aware of it.

Clichés are one of the things you should keep listening for when you rewrite and read your successive drafts aloud.

Clichés are the enemy of taste.

Imitation is part of the creative process for anyone learning an art or a craft.

Eloquence invites us to bring some part of ourselves to the transaction.

Go with what seems inevitable in your own heritage. Embrace it and it may lead you to eloquence.

21. Enjoyment, Fear and Confidence

One way to generate confidence is to write about subjects that interest you and that you care about.

If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write.

The moral for nonfiction writers is: think broadly about your assignment. Don’t assume that an article for Audubon has to be strictly about nature, or an article for Car & Driver strictly about cars. Push the boundaries of your subject and see where it takes you. Bring some part of your own life to it; it’s not your version of the story until you write it.

22. The Tyranny of the Final Product

This fixation on the finished article causes writers a lot of trouble, deflecting them from all the earlier decisions that have to be made to determine its shape and voice and content.

any time you can tell a story in the form of a quest or a pilgrimage you’ll be ahead of the game. Readers bearing their own associations will do some of your work for you.

It all begins with intention. Figure out what you want to do and how you want to do it, and work your way with humanity and integrity to the completed article.

23. A Writer’s Decisions

Learning how to organize a long article is just as important as learning how to write a clear and pleasing sentence.

The hardest decision about any article is how to begin it. The lead must grab the reader with a provocative idea and continue with each paragraph to hold him or her in a tight grip, gradually adding information.

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 short ones, or even three.

In travel writing you should never forget that you are the guide. It’s not enough just to take your readers on a trip; you must take them on your trip.

No writing decision is too small to be worth a large expenditure of time.

Fondness for material you’ve gone to a lot of trouble to gather isn’t a good enough reason to include it if it’s not central to the story you’ve chosen to tell. Self-discipline bordering on masochism is required.

Readers should always feel that you know more about your subject than you’ve put in writing.

One of the oldest strains in travel writing and humor writing is the eternal credulity of the narrator. Used in moderation, making yourself gullible—or downright stupid—gives the reader the enormous pleasure of feeling superior.

What I’m after is resonance; it can do a great deal of emotional work that writers can’t achieve on their own.

Making these divisions in a long and complex article not only helps the reader to follow your road map. It also takes some of the anxiety out of the act of writing, enabling you to break your material into manageable chunks and to take one chunk at a time.

A crucial decision about a piece of writing is where to end it. Often the story will tell you where it wants to stop.

As a nonfiction writer you must get on the plane. If a subject interests you, go after it, even if it’s in the next county or the next state or the next country. It’s not going to come looking for you.

24. Writing Family History and Memoir

There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published. Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is to come to terms with your life narrative. Another is to work through some of life’s hardest knocks—loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace.

Don’t use your memoir to air old grievances and to settle old scores; get rid of that anger somewhere else. The memoirs that we do remember from the 1990s are the ones that were written with love and forgiveness.

Remember that you are the protagonist in your memoir—the tour guide. You must find a narrative trajectory for the story you want to tell and never relinquish control.

Think small. Don’t rummage around in your past—or your family’s past—to find episodes that you think are “important” enough to be worthy of including in your memoir. Look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory.

The small stories that still stick in your memory have a resonance of their own. Trust them.

Your biggest stories will often have less to do with their subject than with their significance—not what you did in a certain situation, but how that situation affected you and shaped the person you became.

25. Write as Well as You Can

to succeed you must make your piece jump out of a newspaper or a magazine by being more diverting than everyone else’s piece. You must find some way to elevate your act of writing into an entertainment.

We know that verbs have more vigor than nouns, that active verbs are better than passive verbs, that short words and sentences are easier to read than long ones, that concrete details are easier to process than vague abstractions.

If you would like to write better than everybody else, you have to want to write better than everybody else. You must take an obsessive pride in the smallest details of your craft.

Remember that the craft of nonfiction writing involves more than writing. It also means being reliable. Editors will properly drop a writer they can’t count on.

An editor’s hand must also be invisible. Whatever he adds in his own words shouldn’t sound like his own words; they should sound like the writer’s words.

A good editor likes nothing better than a piece of copy he hardly has to touch. A bad editor has a compulsion to tinker, proving with busywork that he hasn’t forgotten the minutiae of grammar and usage.

If you allow your distinctiveness to be edited out, you will lose one of your main virtues. You will also lose your virtue.

Clarity is what every editor owes the reader. An editor should never allow something to get into print that he doesn’t understand.

What you write is yours and nobody else’s. Take your talent as far as you can and guard it with your life. Only you know how far that is; no editor knows. 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.