Review: On Writing Well

I’ve been blogging for one and a half years, but I never read a book on writing to improve my writing. That’s why in the beginning of this year I decided to do so. From what I found around the Internet, there are two books that are widely recommended on writing: The Elements of Style (by William Strunk Jr. and E.B White) and On Writing Well (by William Zinsser). I’ve read both, and here I will review On Writing Well.

The author of the book positioned it as a complement to The Elements of Style. In his own words:

Instead of competing with Strunk & White book I decide to complement it. The Elements of Style was a book of pointers and admonitions: do this, don’t do that. What it didn’t address was how to apply those principles to the various forms that nonfiction writing and journalism can take. That’s what I taught in my course, and it’s what I would teach in my book: how to write about people and places, science and technology, history and medicine, … and everything else under the sun that’s waiting to be written about.

Let’s dig deeper into the book to see what it has to offer.

Inside On Writing Well

The author divided the book into five parts: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes with several chapters in each part.

Part 1. Principles

Part 1 talks about the basic principles of writing, and consists of seven chapters: The Transaction, Simplicity, Clutter, Style, The Audience, Words, and Usage. Here are the main ideas I learned from each chapter:

  • The Transaction
    The essence of writing is rewriting, and the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is.
  • Simplicity
    The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. The mantra is: simplify, simplify.
  • Clutter
    You should examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose. The basic question to answer is: Can any thought be expressed with more economy?
  • Style
    Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself.
  • The Audience
    “Who am I writing for?” is a fundamental question, and it has a fundamental answer: you are writing for yourself. If you write with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for.
  • Words
    You’ll never make your mark as a writer unless you develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive.
  • Usage
    Good usage consists of using good words if they already exist – as they almost always do – to express yourself clearly and simply to someone else.

The lesson that I should write for myself is especially surprising to me. I thought I should write for the readers, but the author made the point (which is again emphasized in part 4) that if I write for myself, I will enjoy the process. This enjoyment will show up in my writing and the readers will in turn enjoy it.

Part 2. Methods

Part 2 talks about some more specific methods we should use to write well. It consists of three chapters: Unity, The Lead and the Ending, and Bits & Pieces. Here are the main ideas:

  • Unity
    Unity is the anchor of good writing. Therefore choose among the many variables and stick to your choice. You should have unity of pronoun, tense, and mood.
  • The Lead and the Ending
    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. And you should give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did to your first.
  • Bits & Pieces
    There are a lot of tips on this chapter on many points such as the usage of verbs, adverbs, adjectives, punctuations, and more.

Part 3. Forms

This part talks about how to write various forms of nonfiction, and consists of 9 chapters: Nonfiction as Literature, Writing About People, Writing About Places, Writing About Yourself, Science and Technology, Business Writing, Sports, Writing About the Arts, and Humor.

As you can see from the chapter titles, this part deals with how to write certain forms of nonfiction writing. You will find specific tips for one form in each chapter.

Part 4. Attitudes

This part discusses the attitudes a good writer should have. It consists of six chapters: The Sound of Your Vice, Enjoyment, Fear and Confidence, The Tyranny of the Final Product, A Writer’s Decisions, Writing Family History and Memoir, and Write as Well as You Can. Here are the main ideas:

  • The Sound of Your Voice
    Finding a voice that your readers will enjoy is largely a matter of taste. Taste chooses words that have surprise, strength, and precision. The trick is to study writers who have it.
  • Enjoyment, Fear and Confidence
    The reader has to feel that the writer is feeling good, even if he isn’t. If you write about subjects you think you will enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write.
  • The Tyranny of the Final Product
    Fixation on the finished article causes writers a lot of trouble. The author wrote, “I have no interest in teaching writers how to sell. I want to teach them how to write. If the process is sound, the product will take care of itself, and sales are likely to follow.”
  • A Writer’s Decisions
    This chapter gives a lot of tips on making decisions about structure and individual words.
  • Writing Family History and Memoir
    You can’t write everything. If you try to do so, your work will never finish. The key is thinking small.
  • Write as Well as You Can
    If you would like to write better than everybody else, you have to want to write better than everybody else. You must take an obsessive pride in the smallest details of your craft.

Conclusion

I got invaluable lessons from this book to improve my writing. After reading it myself, I can understand why this book is widely recommended around the Internet. It’s rich and dense, with no useless words. I’m also inspired by the author’s attitude toward writing. For him, writing is an art; it’s like writing a symphony.

All in all, if you are involved in nonfiction writing, On Writing Well is a must-read. This book is perhaps the best book on writing we could find.

6 Comments

  1. […] Review: On Writing Well | Life Optimizer:  Zinsser’s book is helpful indeed, and it’s not one that we hear about in the blogosphere as much as some others.  Check out this review if you’re interested in learning more.  (Note: yes, I noticed it too.  Donald misprints the title of the Strunk and White book in his post.  But I still liked the review.  No one’s perfect.) […]

  2. I recommend On Writing Well very very highly to everyone. I gave a copy to my dad (a high school principal) for Christmas a year ago. I make a point to re-read this book — as well as Elements of Style — once or twice a year, to keep bad habits from coming back.

    I also like one of his other books, Writing About Your Life, but I’m not as sold on Writing to Learn.

    By the way, have you seen the new Elements of Style with pictures? Mmmm… I’m glad I have a previous, text-only copy; the image fluff detracts from the feel of the book…

  3. Kirk,

    I agree that both of them are important books that worth rereading once or twice a year as you do. It’s very easy for bad habits to come back otherwise.

    And thanks for recommending Writing About Your Life; I think I need to read that book too.

  4. The Elements of Style has long been established as THE definitive source for writing properly. BUT the book doesn’t necessarily teach you how to write well. Did that make sense?

    One of the important characteristics about writing well is to pick good subjects and to get your message across clearly. You already do that quite well (although we can ALL get better).

    Another thing I’ve found to help your writing is to work on your vocabulary. The best thing I’ve found for that is an audio program called Verbal Advantage (verbaladvantage.com)

    It is an incredibly comprehensive program that will help anyone build an absolutely incredible vocabulary. And before you ask, I am NOT affiliated with the company (grin) . . .

    Take care

    Mr Positioning (Stanley F. Bronstein, Atty, CPA, Author and Professional Speaker)

  5. Stanley,
    Thanks for the tips. I need such tips to improve my writing.

  6. Abhishek Upmanyu
    Abhishek Upmanyu

    ” On writing Well” is sure a good book, but there are better books. Here is a list of what i think are the best books on writing and grammar

    For Grammar: “A Student’s Guide to English Grammar” by Huddleston and Pullum

    For Writing : “Style Towards Clarity and Grace” by Joseph Williams
    DO NOT GO FOR “ELEMENTS OF STYLE”, I know it’s all around the internet as the “best book” but it isn’t. Read this http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497

    For punctuations, the best book is ” Eats, Shoots and Leaves”

    I think these books are good enough to take you places

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