On Writing Well
By William Zinsser
(Harper Perennial, 336 pp)
Scope: Principles, methods, and forms of writing
Overview: Zinsser wrote this book in 1975 based on a nonfiction writing coarse he’d been teaching at Yale. In fact, the book’s subtitle is The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. But this book offers much to all writers—no matter their genre or specialty. Good writing is good writing, irrespective of form.
The first third of the book discusses universal topics like style, word choice and usage, and beginning and ending well. The author even includes a sample from an early draft of this book, inked with edits, to demonstrate how to apply these principles in revision.
Next the author gets more specific: how to conduct and distill an interview, travel writing, memoir writing, science and business writing. But even here where the scope narrows, much of the material can be applied to any type of writing. So I encourage sci-fi and science writers alike to read through to the end. Both will be well rewarded.
- “The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”
Needless words, jargon, and repetitious adverbs all weaken writing. Every element of a sentence, Zinsser says, should do “useful work.”
- “Take special care with the last sentence of each paragraph—it’s the springboard to the next paragraph.”
As important as it is too begin well—and it is important—a good writer must end well too. This applies on both the micro and macro level. Arrange your sentences so the most important words fall at the end. Help the reader transition with well-crafted endings to each of your paragraphs. Echo something of the beginning in your final paragraphs to bring the story full circle.
- “Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.”
Qualifying words and phrases like “a little,” “kind of,” and “rather” water down writing and undermine the reader’s trust in the author. They weaken and confuse descriptions. Instead, be decisive and bold with your prose.
- Of your descriptions: “Eliminate every such fact that is a known attribute: don’t tell us that the sea had waves and the sand was white. Find details that are significant.”
It’s easy, especially when writing about setting or places, to fall into cliché. Choose instead details and qualities that are distinct, specific, and vivid.
- “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.”
Read, imitate, master. Take pride in your writing and be particular down to the last period.