Summary of On Writing Well by William Zinsser

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  • Post last modified:September 18, 2023

Summary: 5 minutes

Book reading time: 5h33

Score: 5/10

Book published: 1976

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  • Good writing is as simple as possible with as few words as possible.
  • Be as specific as possible.
  • Use a lot of verbs.
  • Most writers don’t write periods soon enough.

Table of Contents

What On Writing Well Talks About

On Writing Well was written by William Zinsser. The book is a guide to writing non-fiction. The author gives a bunch of principles in the first part of the book then explains how to write each type of non-fiction text. I learned that good writing happens when you can convey a message as precisely as possible with as few words as possible.

While this book is regarded as one of the best books on writing, it’s not.

This isn’t surprising since William Zinsser admitted at the beginning of the book that he did not enjoy writing.

So, why isn’t it good?

First of all, calling one’s own book “On Writing Well” is pretentious. Stephen King also wrote a book on writing that he called “On writing”. He dropped the “well” for the better.

Second, you will only find good writing advice in the first and second parts of the book because the rest is awful.

Zinsser, who advises writing stuff people want to read, fails to respect his own advice. He tells you how he went to interview a professional bird watcher or how he traveled in Morocco (I skimmed this part).

Halfway through, the book becomes a painful lesson on good and bad writing, with examples nobody cares about.

The author speaks so much about himself that you’re wondering if you’re still reading the same book. And it’s not even relevant to the topic!

I recommend you read the book, but only the first two parts.

Skip the rest as it’s a waste of time.

Alternatively, you can read this summary.

The first half of the book gets an 8/10, and the last two parts get a 2/10.

That makes 5/10.

And it feels generous. Too generous.

Get it on Amazon.

Summary of On Writing Well Written by William Zinsser

Part 1: Principles

There is no such thing as “the right method to write”. Whatever helps you write will do.

Current writing is cluttered with fluff that makes it hard to understand.

Good writing is stripping a sentence to its cleanest components. In general, people do the opposite, which is why writing is bad.

All words that serve no purpose should be taken out.

Clear thinking = clear writing.

Writing is hard.

Clutter is the official language used by corporations to hide their mistakes.

You need to take the clutter off. One way to do so is to put the words you don’t need in brackets.

Few people realize how badly they write.

To write well, be yourself. To be yourself, relax, and be confident.

Use I, we, us. Be a person. Don’t be afraid to say what you think.

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

Don’t think about the audience. You are writing for yourself, and to please yourself.

Please yourself and the reader will be pleased.

Never say in writing what you wouldn’t say in a conversation.

Writing is learned through imitations. Make a habit of reading the authors that write what you want to write.

Read your text out loud to find out what is right and what isn’t.

Part 2: Method

You learn to write by writing.

All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem. The problem needs to be confronted and solved.

Unity is the anchor of good writing. Eg:

  • Choose a pronoun to write from, and stick to it (first person, second person).
  • Choose a tense
  • Choose a mood/tone: are you telling a story, writing an informative article, giving guidelines?
  • Your attitude (involved, detached, ironic, etc)

Think small. You are not going to write a “definitive” book about anything. Define what you want to write about and stick to it. Tolstoy didn’t write about war and peace. He wrote about characters during events.

Every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought he didn’t have before.

The most important sentence is the first one. Its purpose is to get your reader to read the second one, etc.

Readers want to know very soon what’s in the article for them. Add value!

Every paragraph should amplify the one that precedes it.

Be careful with the last sentence of each paragraph. It must move the reader to the next paragraph.

Writers hook readers with odd facts.

Always gather more material than you will use, so you can choose.

Look for material everywhere.

A narrative is the oldest way to hold someone’s attention. Everyone wants to be told a story.

Your last sentence is almost as important as your first sentence.

Don’t write conclusions. You will repeat something you have already said, which bores the reader. End the text with a surprise instead.

The active voice is preferred to the passive voice.

Verbs are the most important tools. Plain nouns are the second best tools.

Most adverbs, adjectives, and little qualifiers (a bit, little very, too, pretty much, etc) are unnecessary.

Good writing is lean and confident.

Most writers don’t write period soon enough.

Don’t use the exclamation point unless you want to achieve a certain effect.

Alert the reader when changing the mood. Words like but, yet, however, etc are made for that.

“But” can be used to start a sentence. There is no stronger word than that. Don’t start a sentence with “however”.

Don’t hesitate to contract: cannot -> can’t.

That VS which: always use “that” unless it makes the meaning ambiguous. If your sentence needs a comma, use “which”.

Concept nouns: laughter, from laughing, run, from running, etc.

Your sentences should have “people doing things” inside. Speak about people.

Don’t overstate. You will break the trust with your reader.

Write at your own pace. It’s not a competition.

The best way to solve a problem in a sentence is to get rid of it.

Write paragraphs, but not too long (around 3 sentences).

Rewriting is the essence of writing well. Clear writing is the result of a lot of tinkering.

Part 3: Forms

Don’t say: Mr. Smith said that he liked to “go downtown to get a haircut”.
Do say: “I like to go downtown to get a haircut”, said Mr. Smith.

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

When writing about travel, write about stuff the reader does not expect to happen. No one cares about Venice’s canal until someone falls into it.

What brings a place alive is human activity.

Part 4: Attitudes

Knowing what not to do is more important than knowing what to do.

Clichés are the enemy of taste.

Never hesitate to imitate another writer. It is part of the creative process.

Writing that will last is made out of words that are short and strong.

The reader should feel the writer is enjoying himself.

Writers that write interestingly keep themselves interested.

You can’t write about the disappearance of small towns in Europe. You have to write about the disappearance of one small town.

Don’t write sentences with more than one idea inside.

Write what your readers want to know.

99% of writing comes from mastering the tools at your disposal.

If you want to write better, you have to have the will to do so.

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