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On Writing Well

The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

By William Zinsser
15-minute read
Audio available
On Writing Well by William Zinsser

On Writing Well (1976) by William Zinsser is an indispensable guide to the art and craft of nonfiction writing. Adapted from Zinsser’s writing course at Yale University, this handbook introduces the principles of good writing in a warm, accessible way. What’s more, it’s packed with tips, tricks, and tools for polishing prose to perfection.

  • Beginner writers who feel intimidated by the blank page
  • Storytellers who want to tame their sentences and sharpen their skills
  • Professionals who know that writing well is non-negotiable

William Zinsser, an acclaimed journalist and essayist, authored 19 books on topics ranging from baseball to jazz. In the 1970s, Zinsser was head of Yale University’s influential writing workshop. His craft books, including On Writing Well and Writing to Learn, are regarded as classics in the genre.

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On Writing Well

The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

By William Zinsser
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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On Writing Well by William Zinsser
Synopsis

On Writing Well (1976) by William Zinsser is an indispensable guide to the art and craft of nonfiction writing. Adapted from Zinsser’s writing course at Yale University, this handbook introduces the principles of good writing in a warm, accessible way. What’s more, it’s packed with tips, tricks, and tools for polishing prose to perfection.

Key idea 1 of 9

To write well, write simply.

Are you desirous of becoming privy to privileged information that will facilitate adept, dexterous, and proficiently written composition on your part?

Wait. Scratch that. Let’s try it again.

Do you want to know the secret to good writing? Simplicity. 

The key message in this blink is: To write well, write simply.

Novice writers often try to impress. They reach for the most obscure words in their vocabulary. They jam clause upon clause into their sentences. Their nouns are weighed down with adjectives and their verbs are saddled with adverbs. The end result is usually more impenetrable than impressive. Worse, it makes it difficult for the reader to . . . well, read the writing.

When it comes to writing, adding words, clauses, or complexity can actually detract from what you’re doing. To write well, strip down each component of your sentence into its cleanest parts. Cut out words that don’t perform a function. Make long words short. Strive for simplicity.

Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? Well, there’s a catch. Clear writing is only achievable through clear thinking, which is only achievable by decluttering the mind. It’s possible to hide a half-baked argument with verbiage, jargon, and waffling – just listen to any politician. But clear writing that is well-thought-out leaves the writer with nowhere to hide.

To write simply and clearly, the writer must always come back to one central question: What am I trying to say? Answering this question might be harder than she thinks, especially if she’s still working through it. And when she’s finished writing, she must ask herself another question: Have I said what I meant to say?

Next, she must ruthlessly clear the clutter from her pages so that nothing draws focus from her message. What constitutes clutter? Any word or phrase that isn’t required or doesn’t enhance the meaning of what is being written. Here are a few examples:

Redundant prepositions. Why face up to a challenge when you can simply face a challenge?

The same goes for adjectives. Why describe a personal acquaintance when, by definition, acquaintances are personal?

Edit out long words and labored word clusters. Verbiage may be in vogue in corporate contexts, but there’s no need to say currently, at the present time, or even at this juncture when a simple now will suffice. A clear sentence is easy to read. But it takes skill, thought, and practice to write one.

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