Authors: William Zinsser
On Writing Well is a book that gives it to you straight on writing non-fiction. The main focus of the book is to write how you speak, simplify, edit, and simplify again. Zinsser argues that one of the main failings of most non-fiction is the writer trying too hard to impress the audience. The writing is better if it is true to the author.
Disclaimer: These are my personal notes about what I found important. They are not a replacement for reading the book, which I recommend you do.
Clutter is the disease of American writing.
The secret to good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing.
Readers have short attention spans and lots of things trying to get their attention. Writers must constantly ask: What a I trying to say? Then they must ask: Have I said it? Could someone reading it for the first time understand it?
Writing rarely comes out perfect the first or third time. Writing is hard, because it is hard.
Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out that shouldn’t be there. Examine every word you put on paper. You will find a surprising number that don’t belong there. Clutter is political correctness gone amuck. It is official language used by corporations to hide their mistakes
Clutter is the enemy. Beware of long words that can be substituted with shorter ones: assistance (help), numerous (many)
Phrases such as “I might add” or “it should be pointed out” should be avoided.
Most first drafts can be cut by 50% without losing anything or losing the authors voice.
Cut out clutter ruthlessly. Is every new sentence adding a new idea? Is every word doing new work? Can any word be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious? Don’t hang onto something just because you think it sounds good.
Before focusing on style, you must make sure the content and writing is sturdy. Style should be organic and a part of the person. Style is not something that can be copied well. Readers want the person to sound genuine so be yourself. You must relax and have confidence.
Don’t focus on how you sound to the writer. Don’t try to sound authoritative or knowledgeable. Be yourself.
Try to write in the first person. It is easier to be more genuine. If you aren’t allowed to use “I” think “I” while writing.
Take a position in your writing will make it more clear. Clutter and lack of style often comes from the lack of being decisive and confident.
Who are you writing for? You are writing for yourself. Don’t try to guess what your reader wants. Every reader is different. Editors and readers don’t know what they want until they read it.
If something amuses you when writing, write it down. It can always be taken out later.
It is your job to master the tools to write well so your reader doesn’t get lost, but not your job for the reader to like or agree with what you say. One is mechanical, the other is creative.
Be Yourself when you write. Don’t write something you wouldn’t say in conversation. Don’t use words you wouldn’t say. It takes courage to write for yourself without thinking what others think but it produces better writing.
Who am I writing for? The question that starts this chapter irks some readers. They want me to say Whom am I writing for. But I can’t bring myself to say it. It’s just not me.
Have a respect for words and avoid journalese (slang, adjectives at nouns like greats, notables, or nouns as verbs such as “to host”, beef up, put teeth into. Care deeply about words.
The race to writing is not to the swift but to the original.
Use a dictionary. Look up words you don’t know.
An occasional short sentence can deliver a strong punch. It stays in someones ear.
Does the word convey a real need?
Focus on being precise and avoiding cliche words and usages that are vague or try to replace words that already fill a the role.
Separate usage from Jargon. “Prioritize” is Jargon and pompous, where “rank” fills that need.
Try to avoid trendy catch phrases as they often don’t last.
“I don’t want to give somebody my input and get his feedback, though I’d be glad to offer my ideas and hear what he thinks of them.”
Good usage consists of using good words if they already exist, and they usually do, to express myself clearly and simply to someone else.
You learn to write by writing.
Unity is the anchor of good writing. Choose from the many variables and stick to your choice.
What pronoun will you use? First person, third person?
What tense? Future, present, past? Decide what kind of article you want to write and stick with it. Be consistent.
If you start writing and realize the style you wrote wasn’t the best one, it is okay to change, but it should be consistent overall. Repair the first part.
The Lead and the Ending
The most important sentence in any article is the first one. Readers want to know, very soon, what’s in it for them. You must capture the reader immediately and encourage him to keep reading. Next, the lead must show real evidence to show the reader why this was written and why he should read it.
Each following paragraph should give stronger detail and less to entertaining the reader. Giving surprise and humor will capture the reader.
Collect more material than you think you need. But remember to start writing at some point. Don’t let your research stop your from writing.
Avoid cliches such as “a long time ago” “a few days ago” “image what an alien would think if they saw us…..”
There is no one style to capture a reader.
Knowing how to end an article is more important than most writers think.
The perfect ending should take your readers by surprise and yet feel right in place.
When you are ready to stop, stop. The reader should not be ready for the article to end. They should want more.
Choose a quote or something from the beginning that ties in the beginning. Don’t summarize.
Bits and Pieces
Use Active verbs unless there is no way to get around passive verbs. Active verbs create clarity and vigor. Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the story forward.
Most adverbs are unnecessary. They add clutter. Don’t say “blared loudly”. The verb alone is strong enough. Adjectives are also weakened by adverbs. Such as “effortlessly easy”. “completely flabbergasted” is no different than “Flabbergasted” can not be done partially. Don’t use adverbs unless they do necessary work.
Avoid words like decidedly. It doesn’t tell who is deciding. Same as arguably doesn’t tell who is arguing. They allow obscurity.
Most adjectives are also unnecessary. If the concept is already in the noun they aren’t needed. Not every oak has to be gnarled. Make sure your adjectives do work. “He looked at the Grey clouds and the dark sky and decided to return to the harbor” the grey clouds and dark sky are the reason for the return so they are important.
Remove words such as “a little” “a bit” “sort of” “kind of” “rather” “too” “very” “pretty much”. They dilute your style and persuasiveness. Good writing is lean and confident. Don’t say you were a little tired. Say you were tired.
Most writers don’t reach it soon enough. They drag sentences out. If the sentence becomes too long, it is probably because you are trying to make a sentence do more than it should. It is better to write short sentences. If a sentence is too long, break it up.
The exclamation point
Don’t use it unless you must to achieve a certain point. It is better to use words, and their order, to create emphasis than try and use a an exclamation point. Don’t use them to remind readers that a point is humorous or ironic. Let them find it for themselves.
Should be used sparingly. Used too often it can bring the reader to a slow pace.
The dash is used to amplify the importance of the second part of a sentence. “We decided to keep going-it was only 100 miles more and we could get there by dinner.”
The other uses two dashes to show a parenthetical thought within a longer sentence. “She told me to get in the car–she had been after me all summer to have a haircut–and we drove silently into town”
Used for writing an a list. “I went to the following cities: Tokyo, Osaka, Nagano.
Use words such as but, however, yet, nevertheless, still, instead, thus, therefore, and similar words when there is a change in the mood to make the transition easier for the reader.
Sentences can start with but. It is a strong word to start with and conveys contrast. However is a weaker word than but. Don’t start a sentence with however and don’t’ end one with however. Just try to put it in early.
Yet is similar to but though meaning is closer to nevertheless. They allow a sentence to be shortened when showing contrast. “Despite all of these danger he still decided to go” can be shortened to “Yet he decided to go”
Be careful to use time words consistently such as today, yesterday, recently.
Contractions will help your writing seem warmer and more real. I’ll sounds softer than I will. Mae sure it fits you and your style. Avoid I’d, He’d, We’d, She’d because they have multiple meanings.
That and Which
Always use “That” unless it makes it ambiguous. Which is often tought as correct, but its not. That is what you would say. “Take the shoes that are in the closet” means take the shoes in the closet not the ones under the bed. “Take the shoes, which are in the closet” tells you where the shoes are.
When you try to use a noun as a verb. “The common reaction is incredulous laughter” vs “Most people just laugh with disbelief”. Concept nouns don’t require people doing things. Add people and they don’t work.
Trying to string together nouns instead of using a verb such as “money problem areas” instead of going broke.
Be careful about over-exaggerating because it makes it seem less believable. “It looked like an atomic bomb went off”
Don’t blow something up to make it seem bigger than it was or your will lose credibility.
Be careful about dictation and always be sure to edit.
Writing isn’t a competition. You aren’t competing against other writers. Focus on learning the craft.
The subconscious mind
Your subconscious mind does more writing than you think. A problem you couldn’t solve will eventually get solved by your subconscious mind. Be sure to listen to it.
The quickest fix
A problem sentence can often be fixed by just getting rid of it.
Paragraphs should be short. Though don’t go crazy as too many short ones can be just as annoying as long ones. Study good non-fiction writers.
Avoid words that convey sexism or “ownership” such as settler’s wives”. Find alternative ways to say things such as “chair” instead of “chairperson” Replace him or her with reader, jumper, driver. Use “our” or “we” or “you” instead of he or she.
Rewriting is the essence of writing well. There are always better ways to write things to make them clearer and have better rhythm. Learn to enjoy the process.
Trust your material
There is nothing more entertaining than the truth. It’s what people want to hear. People write better when they write what they care about. Don’t annoy your readers by over explaining and telling them something they already know.
Go with your interests
No topic is off limits. Write about hobbies, things you enjoy, things you learned in college, etc
Writing about People
Get people talking. Ask questions that get people talking about what is most interesting or vivid in their lives. Nothing gets people talking as what they think or do in their own words. His own words will always be better than your words. They convey his enthusiasm. He is talking to the reader directly.
Whatever form you write, it will come alive with the number of quotes you can weave into it.
When something seems lifeless, look for the human element. Choose someone for the interview who touches some corner of the readers life. It doesn’t have to be the owner or president of the company.
Don’t always expect the interview to go smoothly. Sometimes coming back a second or third time will help it go better.
FOr writing, tape records aren’t ideal because a writer should be able to see his material. If your interviewer speaks too fast, ask him to pause so you can take notes. Type up the notes and figure out which parts are important. Don’t try to use it all. Try to quote-specially when the interviewee chooses their words carefully.
It’s fine to write “he said”. Its okay to change quotes to make them clearer when necessary. Avoid writing “he smiled” or “he grinned”
Writing about Places
The Travel Article
Don’t try to write all the details. Focus on the things that made it stand out and different from other trips. You must fascinate the reader with things that haven’t already been covered.
Choose words carefully. Words used for travel often have little meaning and are fluff. When you write about a place to to draw the best out of it.
Writing about Yourself
Write about what you know and what you think. Detail is important. Be careful of your ego when writing about yourself.