How to write better: fresh favorite highlights from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well

I recently stumbled my highlights from William Zinsser’s classic book, On Writing Well [Amazon]. His advice is still as relevant now as it was in 1976 when first published.

I’ve already shared some highlights, but now there’s even more :).

Writing advice is like a food recipe: you should read several versions, memorize the ingredients and principles, and then let your creative mind and personal taste do the rest.


Nobody told all the new computer writers that the essence of writing is rewriting. Just because they’re writing fluently doesn’t mean they’re writing well.

Consider all the prepositions that are draped onto verbs that don’t need any help. We no longer head committees. We head them up. We don’t face problems anymore. We face up to them when we can free up a few minutes.

“Experiencing” is one of the worst clutterers. Even your dentist will ask if you are experiencing any pain. If he had his own kid in the chair he would say, “Does it hurt?”

Don’t inflate what needs no inflating: “with the possible exception of” (except), “due to the fact that” (because), “he totally lacked the ability to” (he couldn’t), “until such time as” (until), “for the purpose of” (for).

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

It’s amazing how often an editor can throw away the first three or four paragraphs of an article, or even the first few pages, and start with the paragraph where the writer begins to sound like himself or herself.

Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it.

Editors and readers don’t know what they want to read until they read it. Besides, they’re always looking for something new.

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.

Master the small gradations between words that seem to be synonyms. What’s the difference between “cajole,” “wheedle,” “blandish” and “coax”?

“the pen must at length comply with the tongue,” as Samuel Johnson said, and that today’s spoken garbage may be tomorrow’s written gold.

Another choice is unity of mood. You might want to talk to the reader in the casual voice that The New Yorker has strenuously refined.

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.

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

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.

One moral of this story is that 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…

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

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.

Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.

Among good writers it is the short sentence that predominates, and don’t tell me about Norman Mailer—he’s a genius.

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

Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with “but.” If that’s what you learned, unlearn it—there’s no stronger word at the start.

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

Keep your paragraphs short. Writing is visual—it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain.

Most rewriting consists of reshaping and tightening and refining the raw material you wrote on your first try. Much of it 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.

I’m not saying that fiction is dead. Obviously the novelist can take us into places where no other writer can go: into the deep emotions and the interior life.

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. BAD: Mr. Smith said that he liked to “go downtown once a week and have lunch with some of my old friends.”

Finally, don’t strain to find synonyms for “he said.” Don’t make your man assert, aver and expostulate just to avoid repeating “he said,” and please—please!—don’t write “he smiled” or “he grinned.” I’ve never heard anybody smile.

Memoir is the art of inventing the truth.

A tenet of journalism is that “the reader knows nothing.” As tenets go, it’s not flattering, but a technical writer can never forget it.

The ego of the modern athlete has in turn rubbed off on the modern sportswriter. I’m struck by how many sportswriters now think they are the story, their thoughts more interesting than the game they were sent to cover.

It’s necessary, in short, to be a critic—which, at some point in his or her career, almost every writer wants to be.

We like good critics as much for their personality as for their opinions.

How should a good piece of criticism start? You must make an immediate effort to orient your readers to the special world they are about to enter.

The most boring sentence in the daily newspaper is the last sentence of the editorial, which says “It is too early to tell whether the new policy will work” or “The effectiveness of the decision remains to be seen.”

Writing that will endure tends to consist of words that are short and strong; words that sedate are words of three, four and five syllables, mostly of Latin origin, many of them ending in “ion” and embodying a vague concept.

Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That’s almost the whole point of becoming a writer.

any time you can tell a story in the form of a quest or a pilgrimage you’ll be ahead of the game.

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

When you get such a message from your material—when your story tells you it’s over, regardless of what subsequently happened—look for the door.

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.

Highlights from The Untold History of Ramen

I just finished reading about half of The Untold History of Ramen by George Solt [Amazon]. I skipped most of the middle, where he explains ramen’s evolution in Japan through the 19th and 20th centuries, and focused instead on the bookends, where he talks about how ramen was brought to Japan by Chinese laborers, and how ramen eventually migrated to America and became a global phenomenon.

I love ramen. Anyway.

Below are some highlights from the book. Because author George Solt is foremost an academic and not a chef, the book is about far more than just the noodles and broth. A recipe book it is not. Nor food porn. More like nerd porn: You get a light brush across history, culture, economics, and in particular, international perceptions of Japan, and how Japan itself understands and interprets these perceptions. You can tell from his writing that he’s annoyed by the simplified and often sensational Western portrayals of Japan. Or maybe he’s just tired of it.


The overall transformation of eating into a form of entertainment with fetishistic undertones, known as the gourmet boom

while ramen tours, documentaries, and books all tended to move the still-forming noodle narrative in the direction of a nationalistic tale of improving Chinese foods, Tamamura instead viewed the new reverence for the dish as a sign of “the emptiness of Japanese affluence” in the post-high-growth era.

Third, and most crucial, Nakae contends, was the cramped living conditions of the urban tenement housing in which most Japanese families lived, which made dining at family restaurants “basically an escape from everyday life.”

Satomi claims that for him the value of the dish derives from its very status as a pedestrian, or “B-class,” food in contrast to the more rarified realm of soba noodles.

Like Menya Musashi, most new shops that opened after the late 1990s no longer used the term ramen in their names but had more traditional Japanese names instead.

One of the clearest signals of ramen’s dissociation from China and its rebranding as Japanese was the change in uniform chosen by ramen chefs.

In the late 1990s and 2000s, however, younger ramen chefs, inspired primarily by Kawahara Shigemi, founder of the ramen shop Ippūdō, started to wear Japanese Buddhist work clothing, known as samue. Usually worn by Japanese potters and other practitioners of traditional arts, the samue, usually in purple or black, was worn by craftsmen in eighteenth-century Japan and would not have been considered appropriate for the ramen chef prior to the 1990s rebranding

Another important physical change marking the new wave ramen shop was the use of large displays of poems and life advice composed by the store’s owner to underscore their seriousness about the work of making ramen.

Although American familiarity with instant ramen can be dated to the early 1970s with Nissin Foods’ release of the Top Ramen brand…

Japan slowly shed its reputation as an “economic animal” (an appellation dating back to the 1970s) and gained a new identity as an incubator of fashion and cultural trends on par with Western Europe.

Japan’s passion for ramen began to define Japan itself; the more the Japanese defined ramen in national terms, the more the nation became identified with the noodle soup.

In one of his last postings, in June 2011, Wong noted that for health reasons he was eating much less ramen and had taken to a Mediterranean diet.

he told me I should consider increasing the water content of my noodles by 1 percent. Then he congratulated me on my success, rounded up his crew, and left.

Readers are informed that [David] Chang, like the rameniac Rickmond Wong, worked as an English teacher in Japan while learning to eat ramen but did not actually learn to speak much Japanese in the process (as is typical of many Americans living in the country)

Meehan draws attention to the vending machines dispensing alcoholic beverages, the displays of menus in the form of plastic food in front of restaurants, the clean automatic toilets, the gangsters with missing pinkies, and other well-worn aspects of life in Japan that foreigners unacquainted with the country never tire of writing about.

This was a breakthrough in American cinematic representations of Japan, and it was a dramatic departure from films with characters such as the Japanese widow who falls in love with the American who kills her husband (Last Samurai), the Japanese geisha who falls in love with the American who rescues her from the brutality of Japanese patriarchy (Memoirs of a Geisha), and the Japanese actors who serve as stage props or as jokes in and of themselves (Lost in Translation).

Eighty percent of ramen shops in Japan are independently owned, and small ramen shops remain resilient despite the struggles of most other independent food businesses since the 1990s.

The noren wake system, in which the ramen store owner provides a former worker who has at least a year of experience with his personal supply routes, broth and sauce recipes, and personal coaching, usually without any charge, has allowed for the spread of shops modeled after popular stores without any pyramid-like corporate structure.

Takenaka finds that Japan’s value can be located in the country’s smaller scale of production on average compared with the United States and its relative lack of capital concentration across industries, both of which allow for a culture of variation, eccentricity, and creativity to flourish.

Ramen has been the most prominent and successful global export of the Japanese restaurant industry since the internationalization of sushi in the 1980s, and it has become a global phenomenon in the last two decades.

what started as an exotic food from China famed for its affordability, quickness, and nourishing qualities developed into a staple of Japanese working-class cuisine,

The various categories into which the food is simultaneously placed (Japanese food, comfort food, “Chinese” fast food, nighttime post-drinking food, working-class lunch food, young people’s food, bachelor’s food)

“Why Strict Churches Are Strong”: Because followers give up more of their life outside the church

I recently read the academic article “Why Strict Churches Are Strong” [UChicago], which explains the phenomena of why stricter religions and denominations – eg, Orthodox Judaism, or Mormonism, or Sikhism – tend to have more active members and more growth, at least in recent generations.

The article is fascinating and widely cited, and largely uses rational choice theory to explain the outcome. My very basic understanding of rational choice theory is, “assume that people generally make choices out of rational self-interest”. Yes, I’m sure there’s a lot more to it.

The article’s conclusion:

The strength of strict churches is neither a historical coincidence nor a statistical artifact. Strictness makes organizations stronger and more attractive because it reduces free riding. It screens out members who lack commitment and stimulates participation among those who remain

Some highlights and excerpts:

Statistical studies have confirmed that denominational growth rates correlate strongly with “strictness” and its concomitants, and new historical research has revealed that the mainline’s share of the churchgoing population has been declining since the American Revolution

I shall argue that strict demands “strengthen”a church in three ways: they raise overall levels of commitment, they increase average rates of participation, and they enhance the net benefits of membership

The Mormon church has distinctive behavioral requirements and makes heavy demands on members’ time and money, yet is the fastest growing religion of the modern era

“Perhaps the gravest [peril] of all lies in the fact that these colonies are threatened as much by success as by failure…If they attain prosperity they attract a crowd of members who lack the enthusiasm and faith of the earlier ones and are attracted only by self-interest.” This perverse dynamic threatens all groups engaged in the production of collective goods, and it applies to enthusiasm, solidarity, and other social benefits no less than to material resources.

Instead of subsidizing participation, churches can penalize or prohibit alternative activities that compete for members’ resources. In mixed populations, such penalties and prohibitions tend to screen out the less committed members. They act like entry fees and thus discourage anyone not seriously interested in “buying” the product. Only those willing to pay the price remain.

Commenting on his religion’s distinctive dress and grooming requirements, a Sikh put it thus: “The Guru wanted to raise a body of men who would not be able to deny their faith when questioned, but whose external appearance would invite persecution and breed the courage to resist it

Relative to their more mainstream counterparts, members of sectarian groups – both Christian and Jewish – attend more religious services, contribute more money, and (in the Jewish case, at least) choose more of their closest friends from within their religion. They are also less involved in competing activities. They hold fewer memberships in outside groups, contribute less to outside causes, and have fewer outside friends.

Simply put, those most likely to join are those with the least to lose. Losses grow in proportion to both the quantity and the quality of one’s ties to the outside world. You are therefore less likely to join (or remain active in) an exclusive sect if you have an extensive set of social ties to friends and family outside the sect. You are more likely to join if you lack many such ties and are still more likely to join if you have friends or family in the sect.

Stark and Bainbridge (1985, p. 134) arrived at a conclusion that fits the rational choice model perfectly: “Many sects fail to grow (and are never transformed into churches) because their initial level of tension is so high as to cause their early social encapsulation. Once encapsulated, a sect may persist for centuries, depending on fertility and the ability to minimize defection, but it will rarely be able to recruit an outsider.”

They conclude that “particularly in dynamic social environments churches must engage in a continuing balancing act, trading off between religious traditions and social norms…A certain amount of tension with secular society is essential to success-the trick is finding, and maintaining, the right amount.”

Finally a very interesting chart:

Daily Habits Checklist #92 (July 9 – August 5)

Given all the international travel this past month, I’m fairly happy with the scores.

Not much to report otherwise…

I upped the writing requirement from 2 hours every day to 3 hours, which is definitely doable as long as I wake up early (eg, 7am)…

Meditation remains my weakest / most inconsistent habit…

That’s it for now. Thanks for following along!

Here’s why and how I track my daily habits. You can also find me on Twitter.

“It is the ultimate goal of almost all human effort”

The power and omnipresence of the sexual drive: Next to the love of life it shows itself here as the strongest and most active of all motives, and incessantly lays claim to half the powers and thoughts of the younger portion of mankind. It is the ultimate goal of almost all human effort. It has an unfavourable influence on the most important affairs, interrupts every hour the most serious occupations, and sometimes perplexes for a while the greatest human minds…Sex is really the invisible point of all action and conduct, and peeps up everywhere in spite of all the veils thrown over it. It is the cause of war and the aim and object of peace,…the inexhaustible source of wit, the key to all allusions, and the meaning of all mysterious hints, of all unspoken offers and all stolen glances; it is the meditation of the young and often the old as well, the hourly thought of the unchaste and, even against their will, the constantly recurring imagination of the chaste.

From Irvin D. Yalom’s book The Schopenhauer Cure.