On Writing Well

This list should be added to from time to time, but today’s suggested writing how-to is by William Zinsser (On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, reprinted over and over again, is now in its 30th anniversary edition, 336 pp., and is published by Collins).

I first read Zinsser a very long time ago, and I have recently rediscovered his very simple, brief, easy-to-read discussion about how one’s writing benefits from 1) being spare with words, and the tip I’ve used with students throughout the years, 2) reading one’s work aloud, because that’s the fastest way to catch your errors, although I’ve found that having someone else read your work aloud is better. Another person will trip over things you’ve said badly faster and more reliably than you will, since you know what you intended to say, but the other person does not.

There are some crucial things beginning writers, indeed, experienced writers, can learn from his approach. One of them is to cut down on the excess verbiage. This is so obvious, and taught so often, we take this idea for granted nowadays. But if you remember the term “purple prose,” or if you’ve ever read something from the 1700s, let’s say, a particularly flowery time in literary history, you know what Zinsser means. He wants to see clear, direct, and purposeful writing. This is a particular problem now that we often (mostly?) compose on computers, because there are studies that show what you already suspect, which is that it’s far too easy to type too many words, and to be verbose, when online. It’s just simply easier to write on a computer, which leads to prose that usually needs to be tightened and shortened.

If you are a technical writer, or work in the sciences, this book will warm the cockles of your heart, because he focuses on focusing. You need to know what he knows, because his perspective is not influenced as much by the expressivists who write creative fiction, as it is by the idea that if you have something to say, you should say it as directly and simply as possible. This means reducing the use of unnecessary adverbs, cutting out tired or useless verbs, and creating writing that appeals because it’s easy to read and understand.

Zinsser holds up well. Whereas many writing “how-tos” are based almost solely on getting fiction published, Zinsser could be read by any student in virtually any field, such as the sciences, medical writing, or business. Zinsser’s approach can be adapted to almost any writing situation, because most writing, after all, is non-fiction. “On Writing Well” is simply the best basic “how-to” for any writer, at any stage in their ability. It’s great for published writers as well, because it’s always good to go back and remind yourself of the simple stuff you might have forgotten, or perhaps never learned.


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