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.
The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. The mantra is: simplify, simplify.
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.