On Writing Well

By: William Zinsser - Read: April 15, 2023 - Rating: 9/10

Another concise and high value density book on writing, second only to Several Short Sentences on Writing.

William Zinsser has a minimalist approach to writing that focuses on stripping out everything unnecessary and making sure that every word serves a purpose.

He also has great perspective on the purpose of writing and what writing in your own voice actually means.

My Notes

Writing is a craft not an art to Zinsser. Things become more of an art when you become an expert. And he’s trying to give perspective on there being different views of writing.

The ultimate product the writer has to sell is not the subject they are writing about but who they are. The enthusiasm of the writer can bring the reader in - why do they care about the topic? How did it change them?

The two qualities that this book is in search of: humanity and warmth. The goal is to use English in a way that achieves the most clarity and strength

Strip every sentence to it’s cleanest components.

The reader is someone with a very short (30s) attention span and infinite stimulus competing for their attention.

It’s the writer’s responsibility to make the reader understand.

If the reader is lost, it’s because of the writer. The reader will initially blame themselves and try to understand (reread), but they won’t do this for long.

As a writer, you should be constantly asking yourself - what am I trying to say? And then read your writing and ask - have I said it?

Writing takes conscious thought - “a clear sentence is no accident.”

Every edit, Zinsser tries to make his writing more concise and clearer.

Avoid long words that are no better than the short words, extra prepositions, and unnecessary phrases.

Go through writing and bracket/highlight anything that doesn’t add extra value.

You can’t just try to add style to your writing. Style is inherent to a person and comes from your writing reflecting your genuine nature.

Being yourself in your writing requires you to relax (get into flow state) and be confident (enough to leave the humanity in your writing).

Use I and we in your writing. It makes it more human - talk about your thoughts and experiences.

Write from the perspective of “I” even if you don’t use the word.

“Good writers are visible just behind their words” - this reminds me of my thought about consciousness communicating vs people communicating.

The goal of style is to preserve your identity and humanity in your writing.

The audience you are writing for is yourself.

Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation.

Seek variety in the sound and rhythm of your writing to avoid boredom. Read your writing out loud to see how it sounds.

Unity satisfies the reader’s subconscious need for order. You should have unity of pronouns, tenses.

Ask yourself how much you need to cover and what point you want to make. “Every writing project must be reduced before you start to write.”

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

The lead and ending are the most important parts of writing. The most important sentence is the first.

Keep paragraphs short but don’t break up the flow of though.

Rewriting is the most important part of writing - your goal is to see through the lens of the reader and make everything smooth from beginning to end.

Zinsser thinks about making sentences more concise, having varying style, etc. Improve rhythm, flow, clarity, concision, readability, humor, communication.

“There’s nothing more interesting than the truth”

“The assumption is that fact and color are two separate ingredients. They’re not; color is organic to fact. Your job is to present the colorful fact.” - this is true of creating & appreciating art.