William Zinsser - 'On Writing Well'

William Zinsser - 'On Writing Well'


The cover for *On Writing Well*

Be stylish

Most style books are fairly brief. The reason for this is that, traditionally speaking, the trend in non-fiction writing has been ‘keep it short’. For people who work in advertising and for José Saramago, it’s an entirely different story.

This book both keeps it straight while veering into the anecdotal. This book has purportedly sold over a million copies and has been in print for decades and is in its 30th edition. Zinsser sadly died in 2015 at ninety-two years of age. Truly great style guides work through the ages.

Most problems in writing are universal, flowing through all kinds of writing. Most writers need practice and help. This book tries to help all kinds of writers and goes through Zinsser’s experiences in journalism.

I’m a technical writer, and from that perspective, this book offers plenty of sober advice.

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon. Who can understand the clotted language of everyday American commerce: the memo, the corporation report, the business letter, the notice from the bank explaining its latest “simplified” statement? What member of an insurance or medical plan can decipher the brochure explaining his costs and benefits? What father or mother can put together a child’s toy from the instructions on the box? Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important. The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating experiencing considerable precipitation wouldn’t think of saying it may rain. The sentence is too simple—there must be something wrong with it. But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.

What to carve out

Anybody who is riled by jargon and other types of clutter have my attention.

Faced with such obstacles, readers are at first tenacious. They blame themselves—they obviously missed something, and they go back over the mystifying sentence, or over the whole paragraph, piecing it out like an ancient rune, making guesses and moving on. But they won’t do that for long. The writer is making them work too hard, and they will look for one who is better at the craft. Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they don’t know. Then they must look at what they have written and ask: have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time? If it’s not, some fuzz has worked its way into the machinery. The clear writer is someone clearheaded enough to see this stuff for what it is: fuzz.

I love Zinsser’s words on clutter and clarity. They remind me both of what Joe Moran wrote in his First You Write a Sentence. They also touch on recent science 1 about jargon, clutter, puffery, and bullshit:

Many organizations are drowning in a flood of corporate bullshit, and this is particularly true of organizations in trouble, whose managers tend to makeup stuff on the fly and with little regard for future consequences. Bullshitting and lying are not synonymous. While the liar knows the truth and wittingly bends it to suit their purpose, the bullshitter simply does not care about the truth. Managers can actually do something about organizational bullshit, and this Executive Digest provides a sequential framework that enables them to do so. They can comprehend it, they can recognize it for what it is, they can act against it, and they can take steps to prevent it from happening in the future. While it is unlikely that any organization will ever be able to rid itself of bullshit entirely, this article argues that by taking these steps, astute managers can work toward stemming its flood.

What to keep in

At the heart of this book lies the author’s faith in two things: a writer must make efforts to hone their craft, and the writer must add their own personal flair to their writing.

I think Zinsser is almost always correct in this. Sure, there’s bone-dry technical writing, where a reader benefits from not reading what’s written in the second person - i.e. ‘you’ - for example in API documentation. Otherwise, I’m all for it: go bonkers if you want to. This brings us to Zinsser’s next points.

Consider your audience and write with care.

If you do not consider your audience, you may miss your mark entirely. That is, if you have a mark. Some writer’s seem to not care at all. It’s as though their word processor has sucked life out of them and left some kind of word-creating husk whose words are like alphabet soup: like marketing English. Yuck.

Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.

Write, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, continue

Zinsser is a shitty-first-draft kind of person. What do I mean with this? Some writers prefer to try and nail their writing on the first attempt. To me, these writers are as rare as the striated caracara, one of the most elusive birds on the planet. Very few writers, especially those in fiction, elude an editor’s thrifty touch.

Personally, I revel in shitty first drafts. This may be because of my profession, but I really like to wade through a first draft, be it from my own hands or somebody else’s. You can feel what a person is saying from their first draft, something that is almost intangible. There’s something to be said about a threshing process that is loving. And it allows you to see a writer’s thought process. If you’ve gone through a writer’s drafts more than a few times, you’ll get used to how they write, and you understand them better. Mostly.

Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there. “Up” in “free up” shouldn’t be there. Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose. Take the adjective “personal,” as in “a personal friend of mine,” “his personal feeling” or “her personal physician.” It’s typical of hundreds of words that can be eliminated.

Few people realize how badly they write. Nobody has shown them how much excess or murkiness has crept into their style and how it obstructs what they are trying to say. If you give me an eight-page article and I tell you to cut it to four pages, you’ll howl and say it can’t be done. Then you’ll go home and do it, and it will be much better. After that comes the hard part: cutting it to three.

There are many good tips for all writers scattered throughout the first half of the book. I say the first half, as Zinsser later goes into specific areas of writing: memoirs, sports articles, reviews. He writes about being part of a panel at The American Heritage Dictionary (as loved by Microsoft). There’s beauty in editing.

Now I want to tell you how to stop. Knowing when to end an article is far more important than most writers realize. You should give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did to your first. Well, almost as much.

For technical writers, this is obligatory:

A tenet of journalism is that “the reader knows nothing.” As tenets go, it’s not flattering, but a technical writer can never forget it. You can’t assume that your readers know what you assume everybody knows, or that they still remember what was once explained to them.

Zinsser tends to return to the subject of adding yourself to your linguistic equations:

My commodity as a writer, whatever I’m writing about, is me. And your commodity is you. Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page, a voice that’s enjoyable not only in its musical line but in its avoidance of sounds that would cheapen its tone: breeziness and condescension and clichés.


All in all, Zinsser has created a style guide that is not dictatorial but advice passed to us from a veteran writer and stylist. He’s added some tips on grammar and exemplifies what he means by slaughtering quotes from other writers.

Personally, even though they’re different - as all stylish style guides are - I prefer a couple of other style guides than this one. Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style is witty and brief. There’s also Robert Graves and Alan Hodge’s The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose, an astonishingly piercing and clear book on language and how it can - and often should - be written. The latter book contains many examples of how popular writers splayed out their words, and how they should have done it. There’s a lot of laughs in both books, where both authors have readers laughing at their own expense. I still recall passages in ‘Reader’ where Graves dissects his own words, which is brave, very funny, and extremely useful.

Zinsser’s many personal anecdotes are, at times, a bit too jaded for me. Still, that’s a price to pay for a book that relies heavily on personal style and was first written nearly a century ago.

It’s easy to be brutal toward writers, but Zinsser has written a book that he filled with highly useful and personal tips and tricks, for amateur and professional writers both. It’s quickly read. It also does a lot to cast light over different types of style and manners of writing. Get in.

  1. McCarthy, Ian P., David Hannah, Leyland F. Pitt, and Jane M. McCarthy. 2020. “Confronting Indifference toward Truth: Dealing with Workplace Bullshit.” Business Horizons 63 (3): 253–63. 10.1016/j.bushor.2020.01.001