Book Review: On Writing Well

I’ve read a number of writing books over the past several years, and the two which have taught me the most are Douglas Wilson’s Wordsmithy and Stephen King’s A Memoir. If you take the whole writing business seriously, I can’t recommend those books highly enough. But there’s another book you should have on your shelf, too – On Writing Well by William Zinsser. I only just discovered it myself, but it already holds a place among my favorites.

This self-proclaimed “informal guide to writing non-fiction” is exactly that – informal. It’s not a textbook, and it doesn’t want to be, which is one the many reasons I enjoyed it so much. Zinsser’s style is warm and honest, his passion for words contagious. Sure, he gets a little cranky now and then (at one point, he calls Ben-Hur “junk”), but it’s clear that he loves writing – and that he wants us to love it, too.

But don’t get the wrong idea: this isn’t a book for “softies”. Mincing words is not Zinsser’s forte, and when he takes a swing at something he considers silly, he usually hits hard (and with stinging accuracy). According to his way of thinking, it’s not enough for you to want to write – you must also want to write well.

This book can help you do just that.

Instead of throwing myself into a detailed explanation of how it can help you – and why you should let it – I think I’ll just step aside and let the author speak for himself. If that doesn’t convince you of the book’s worth, I don’t know what will.

From chapter two, Simplicity:

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon… Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important. The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating considerable precipitation wouldn’t dream of saying that it may rain. The sentence is too simple – there must be something wrong with it. (p. 7)

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 as a consolation in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things people do. (p. 13)

From chapter five, The Audience:

In terms of craft, there’s no excuse for losing the reader through sloppy workmanship. If he drowses off in the middle of your article because you have been careless about a technical detail, the fault is yours. But on the larger issue of whether the reader likes you, or likes what you are saying or how you are saying it, or agrees with it, or feels an affinity for your sense of humor or your vision of life, don’t give him a moment’s worry. You are who you are, he is who he is, and either you will get along or you won’t. (p. 28)

From chapter six, Words:

Also bear in mind, when you are choosing words and stringing them together, how they sound. This may seem absurd: readers read with their eyes. But actually they hear what they are reading – in their inner ear – far more than you realize. Therefore such matters as rhythm and alliteration are vital to every sentence. (p. 38)

From chapter eleven, The Ending:

The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right. They didn’t expect the article to end so soon, or so abruptly, or to say what it said. But they know it when they see it. Like a good lead, it works. It’s like the curtain line in a theatrical comedy. We are in the middle of a scene (we think) when suddenly one of the actors says something funny, or outrageous, and the lights go out. We are momentarily startled to find the scene over, and then delighted by the aptness of how it ended. What delights us, subconsciously, is the playwright’s perfect control. (p. 76-77)

From chapter thirteen, Writing About a Place:

The other big trap [in travel writing] is style. Nowhere else in nonfiction do writers use such syrupy words and groaning platitudes. Adjectives that you would squirm to use in conversation – “roseate,” “wondrous,” “fabled,” “scudding,” – are common currency. Half the sights seen in a day’s sightseeing are “quaint,” especially windmills and covered bridges. They are certified for quaintness. (p. 95)

From chapter fourteen, Bits & Pieces:

Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs. So are countless adjectives and other parts of speech: “effortlessly easy,” “slightly spartan,” “totally flabbergasted.” The beauty of “flabbergasted” is that it implies an astonishment that is total; I can’t picture someone being partly flabbergasted. If an action is so easy as to be effortless, use “effortless.” And what is “slightly spartan”? Perhaps a monk’s cell with wall-to-wall carpeting. Don’t use adverbs unless they do necessary work. Spare us the news that the losing athlete moped dejectedly and the winner grinned widely. (p. 109-110)

Among good writers it is the short sentence that predominates, and don’t tell me about Norman Mailer – he’s a genius. If you want to write long sentences, be a genius. Or at least make sure that the sentence is under control from beginning to end, in syntax and punctuation, so that the reader knows where he is at every step if the winding trail. (p. 112)

Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with “but.” If that’s what you learned, unlearn it – there’s no stronger word at the start. It announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is primed for the change. If you need relief from too many sentences beginning with “but,” switch to “however.” It is, however, a weaker word and therefore needs careful placement. Don’t start a sentence with “however” – it hangs there like a wet dishrag. And don’t end with “however” – by that time it has lost its howeverness. Put it as early as you reasonably can – as I did three sentences ago. It’s abruptness then becomes a virtue. (p. 114)

From chapter eighteen, Criticism:

Every writer wants at some time to be a critic. Small-town reporters dream of the moment when their editor will summon them to cover the Russian ballet troupe, the concert pianist, the touring repertory company that has been booked into the local auditorium. Then they will trot out the hard-won awards of their college education – “intuit” and “sensibility” and “Kafkaesque” – and show the whole country that they know a glissando from an entrechat. They will discern more symbolism in Ibsen than Ibsen ever thought of. (p. 172)

From chapter twenty three, Write As Well As You Can:

My favorite definition of a careful writer comes from Joe DiMaggio, though he didn’t know that’s what he was defining. DiMaggio was the greatest player I ever saw, and nobody looked more relaxed. He covered vast distances in the outfield, moving in graceful strides, always arriving ahead of the ball, making the hardest catch look routine, and even when he was at the bat, hitting the ball with tremendous power, he didn’t appear to be exerting himself. I marveled at how effortless he looked because what he did could only be achieved by great daily effort. A reporter once asked him how he managed to play so well so consistently, and he said: “I always thought that there was at least one person in the stands who had never seen me play, and I didn’t want to let him down.” (p. 273)

8 thoughts on “Book Review: On Writing Well”

  1. YES, about the “sound” and “rhythm” of words! That is a vital component to beautiful, flowing writing, but I don’t hear it mentioned a lot outside of poetry. Hmm, I might like this book…

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