William Zinsser on writing well

“A writer is always working. Stay alert to the currents around you. Much of what you see and hear will come back, having percolated for days or months or even years through your subconscious mind” – William Zinsser

On Writing Well is a book for working writers who want to improve. If you need inspiration to pick up your pen and put words to paper, I’d recommend Stephen King’s On Writing. If you want to laugh and sympathize with a writer’s life, I’d recommend Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

william-zinsser-on-writing-well

Zinsser’s book is an oyster farm of wisdom. Here are some of my favorite pearls (I couldn’t resist the metaphor :)

  • 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 don’t face problems anymore. We face up to them when we can free up a few minutes.
  • Beware, then, of the long word that’s no better than the short word: “assistance” (help), “numerous” (many), “facilitate” (ease), “individual” (man or woman), “remainder” (rest), “initial” (first), “implement” (do), “sufficient” (enough), “attempt” (try), “referred to as” (called)
  • 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
  • Nouns now turn overnight into verbs. We target goals and we access facts.
  • Trust your material if it’s taking you into terrain you didn’t intend to enter but where the vibrations are good.
  • The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right.
  • Surprise is the most refreshing element in nonfiction writing.
  • This is adjective-by-habit—a habit you should get rid of. Not every oak has to be gnarled.
  • 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.
  • …it is still widely believed—a residue from school and college—that “which” is more correct, more acceptable, more literary. It’s not. In most situations, “that” is what you would naturally say and therefore what you should write.
  • Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it.
  • Most of the nudgers urged me to adopt the plural: to use “readers” and “writers,” followed thereafter by “they.” I don’t like plurals; they weaken writing because they are less specific than the singular, less easy to visualize.
  • 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.
  • Enjoyment, finally, is what all humorists must convey—the idea that they are having a terrific time, and this notion of cranked-up audacity
  • After verbs, plain nouns are your strongest tools; they resonate with emotion.
  • Writing is such lonely work that I try to keep myself cheered up. If something strikes me as funny in the act of writing, I throw it in just to amuse myself.
  • With each rewrite I try to force my personality onto the material.
  • Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That’s almost the whole point of becoming a writer.
  • Two final words occur to me. One is quest, the other is intention.
  • The only thing [readers] should notice is that you have made a sensible plan for your journey. Every step should seem inevitable.
  • Never be afraid to break a long sentence into two short ones
  • 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.
  • You must find some way to elevate your act of writing into an entertainment. Usually this means giving the reader an enjoyable surprise. Any number of devices will do the job: humor, anecdote, paradox, an unexpected quotation, a powerful fact, an outlandish detail, a circuitous approach, an elegant arrangement of words.
  • One of the bleakest moments for writers is the one when they realize that their editor has missed the point of what they are trying to do.

Thanks for reading! Here’s an earlier post on the same topic, how to improve your writing.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.