"On Writing Well" by William Zinsser

  • Book: "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser
  • Pages: 336  
  • Lesson: Learn how to write better
  • For: Anyone who wants to improve their writing

 

Most people that know English can read and speak the language with ease but almost everyone has trouble when it comes to writing.

But whether you’re a businessman, politician or high school student, it is important to know how to write well so that you can express yourself, communicate clearly, and make sure people read what you’ve written.

 

This is what William Zinsser teaches in his book “On Writing Well,” which has sold millions of copies.

Zinsser worked at The New York Tribune and at Yale where he taught students how to write. By the end of his career, he had written 15 books.

 Author William Zinsser

Author William Zinsser

So what lessons can we learn from Zinsser’s book?

 

The first part of the book begins by teaching the principles of good writing. Just like in sports, before you want to play the game, you must learn the rules to it.

 

The principles include learning how to make your writing simple, free of clutter, and which words you should use and avoid.

You must know what the essential tools are and what job they were designed to do.
— Page 19

One way to accomplish this is by studying famous writers.

                                                        Ernest Hemingway and Leo Tolstoy

                                                       Ernest Hemingway and Leo Tolstoy

Make a habit of reading what is being written today and what has been written by earlier masters…and trying to figure out how they did it.
— Page 35

In part two of the book, Zinsser shares lessons on writing in unity, having a good lead and ending, and writing with proper grammar and punctuation.

Zinsser writes that “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” (Page 55).

 

When it comes time to end the piece Zinsser writes, “if you presented all the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the nearest exit” (Page 66).

 

The third part of the book is focused on specific forms. Here Zinsser teaches readers how to write about people you’re interviewing, places you’re traveling to and writing about yourself in a memoir.

 

When writing a travel piece Zinsser advises readers to not ask the tourists what they think of the attraction, but instead ask those who work there or the locals. The tourists visiting have only been there for a few hours or days, but the people who live there have been there for years or sometimes decades.

By interviewing local men and women…I tapped into one of the richest veins waiting for any writer.
— Page 130

Zinsser also goes into detail on how to write about science, business, art, sports, and humor.

When writing about movies, books or art, Zinsser believes only people who love the medium should review it.

The reader deserves a movie buff who will bring along a reservoir of knowledge, passion and prejudice. It’s not necessary for the critic to like every film; criticism is only one person’s opinion. But he should go to every movie wanting to like it. If he is more often disappointed than pleased, it’s because the film has failed to live up to its best possibilities.
— Page 196

In the last part of the book, Zinsser gives advice on how to find your voice, face the fear and enjoyment of being a writer, and what it means to be a nonfiction writer.

 

To find your voice, Zinsser tells readers to once again, study great writers.

Don’t worry that by imitating them you’ll lose your own voice and your own identity. Soon enough you will shed those skins and become who you are supposed to become.
— Page 238

And when it comes to being an excellent nonfiction writer, one must chase their interests.

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.
— Page 285

Overall, whether you’re a student, scientist, or businessman, Zinsser’s book can help everyone become a better writer!