When William Zinsser wrote ‘On Writing Well’ in 1976, the target market was relatively small. It included journalists, editors, teachers, students and people who aspired to write.
Since then, the word processor, PCs and laptops, the internet, and smartphones have turned all of us into writers which means it’s never been more important to write clearly and concisely. Whatever business you’re in, you will benefit from improving your writing skills, even if that just means crafting more readable emails.
As Zinsser writes in the foreword to the most recent edition of his book (which has sold over 1 million copies worldwide), much of the world’s business is now conducted via email.
“Millions of email messages every day give people the information they need to do their job, and a badly written message can do a lot of damage. So can a badly written website. The new age, for all its electronic wizardry, is still writing-based.
On Writing Well is a craft book, and its principles haven’t changed since it was written 30 years ago. I don’t know what still newer marvels will make writing twice as easy in the next 30 years. But I do know they won’t make writing twice as good. That will still require plain old hard thinking … and the plain old tools of the English language.”
What’s special about this month’s book?
Think of this book as the Mitre 10 of writing, a one-stop shop for you to fill your toolbox with tips and techniques to improve your writing. Don’t be put off by the subtitle — The Classic Guide to Writing Non-Fiction. The principles for writing non-fiction or journalism also apply to business writing and Zinsser has dedicated chapters to Business Writing and writing about Science and Technology. Essentially for readers of this blog – ‘On Writing Well’ will help you sell.
Originally from Ireland (like so many great writers!) Robert is a prolific writer from his base in New Zealand, specialising in helping business tell better stories.
Book details for ‘On Writing Well’
Book Title – On Writing Well — The Classic Guide to Writing Non-Fiction
Author – William Zinsser
Publication Date – 1976
Who is William Zinsser?
William Zinsser was an American writer, editor, literary critic, and teacher. He began his career as a journalist for the New York Herald Tribune and he wrote 18 books, many of them about writing. Less is more when it comes to writing, according to Zinsser. “Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it” is one of his most famous quotes.
What is the book’s premise?
Zinsser had taught a non-fiction writing course at Yale for five years and he spent the summer of 1975 translating his course notes into On Writing Well. He saw the book as a complement to another classic writing book The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Where Strunk and White’s book was “a book of pointers and admonitions: do this, don’t do that,” On Writing Well was designed to help writers apply the principles of good writing to “people and places, science and technology, history and medicine, business and education, sports and the arts and everything else under the sun that’s waiting to be written about.” What are you waiting to write?
Does the book deliver on its premise?
If you want to write better emails, blogs, reports, rants, speeches, tweets, LinkedIn posts or love letters then this book is well worth the time and effort.
I’ve been working as a journalist for almost two decades and I only came across the book recently. I wished I’d discovered it years ago. It offers more practical advice per page than any other writing book I’ve read.
You probably know many of the rules already but Zinsser’s gift, like most good teachers, is the way he tells them.
What is the author’s voice like?
Zinsser’s effortless, warm style is peppered with anecdotes, quotes, examples and references that serve to entertain as well as educate. It’s an easy read but to make it even easier, here are five tips that will help improve your writing.
ONE – SHARE A LITTLE BIT OF YOURSELF
“Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is…This is the personal transaction that’s at the heart of good non-fiction writing. Out of it comes the two most important qualities…humanity and warmth.”
TWO – NARROW YOUR FOCUS
“Every writing project must be reduced before you start to write. Therefore think small. Decide what corner of your subject you’re going to bite off, and be content to cover it well and stop.”
THREE – START STRONG
“Readers want to know — very soon — what’s in it for them. Therefore, your lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading. It must cajole him with freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humour, or surprise or with an unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question. Anything will do, as long as it nudges his curiosity and tugs at his sleeve.”
FOUR – WRITE SHORTER SENTENCES
“Readers can process only one idea at a time, and they do it in a linear sequence…What do your readers want to know next? Ask yourself that question after every sentence…Much of the trouble that writers get into comes from trying to make one sentence do too much work. Never be afraid to break a long sentence into two short ones, or even three.”
FIVE – THE POWER OF PARAGRAPHS
“Every paragraph should amplify the one that preceded it…Keep your paragraphs short. Writing is visual — it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain. Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, whereas a long chunk of type can discourage a reader from even starting to read.”
“Paragraphing is a subtle but important element in writing…a roadmap constantly telling your reader how you have organised your ideas. Study good nonfiction writers to see how they do it. You’ll find that almost all of them think in paragraph units, not in sentence units. Each paragraph has its own integrity of content and structure.”
Any memorable quotes?
Lots of great ones. Continuing on from the five tips above, here are a few more:
CUT THE CLUTTER
“Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there…Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose…”
“Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it. Unfortunately, this solution is usually the last one that occurs to writers in a jam. First, they will put the troublesome phrase to all kinds of exertions — moving it to some other part of the sentence, trying to rephrase it, adding new words to clarify the thought or oil whatever is stuck… When you find yourself at such an impasse, look at the troublesome element and ask, “Do I need it at all.” Probably you don’t. It was trying to do an unnecessary job all along — that’s why it was giving you so much grief. Remove it and watch the afflicted sentence spring to life and breathe normally. It’s the quickest cure and often the best.”
SAY WHAT YOU MEAN
“Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw: “a bit”, “a little”, “sort of”, “rather”, “quite”, “very”, “too”, “pretty much”, “in a sense”, and dozens more. They dilute your style and your persuasiveness.”
“Don’t say you were “a bit confused” and “sort of tired” and “a little depressed” and “somewhat annoyed”. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.”
MAKE A GRACEFUL EXIT
“When you’re ready to stop, stop. If you have presented all the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the nearest exit.”
“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.”
IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED…TRY, TRY AGAIN
“Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost. That idea is hard to accept. We all have an emotional equity in our first draft; we can’t believe that it wasn’t born perfect. But the odds are close to 100% that it wasn’t. Most writers don’t initially say what they want to say, or say it as well as they could. The newly hatched sentence almost always has something wrong with it. It’s not clear. It’s not logical. It’s verbose. It’s clunky. It’s pretentious. It’s boring. It’s full of clutter. It’s full of clichés. It lacks rhythm. It can be read in several different ways. It doesn’t lead out of the previous sentence. The point is that clear writing is the result of a lot of tinkering.”
What are some insights I can get from reading this book?
The encouraging thing about this book is Zinsser’s reassuring tone that anyone can write well, at least anyone with half a brain. “Writing is thinking on paper,” he says. “Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all.”
Think, write, repeat.
How do you apply all this in your business?
Brian Clark from Copyblogger, one of the best websites if you want to learn more about content marketing and writing for your business, wrote this blog post called, 10 Steps to Becoming a Better Writer.
- Write more.
- Write even more.
- Write even more than that.
- Write when you don’t want to.
- Write when you do.
- Write when you have something to say.
- Write when you don’t.
- Write every day.
- Keep writing.
The best place to do that if you’re involved in business is LinkedIn. Yes, there is a lot of crap on there, but it is a great way to build up your writing muscles and overcome the fear factor.
Start by writing one meaningful comment a day on someone else’s post. The key is to add value. Then try and post once a week and build from there. The key is to keep writing.
Did the book live up to expectations?
Yes. It’s a simple title with a simple proposition, to help people write well, and it delivers in spades.
Who would you recommend this book to?
Everyone who writes anything for their business, whether it be long or short, would benefit from reading this book.
Who should buy this book?
Bad writers should buy it for themselves.
Good writers should buy it to take their writing to the next level.
Great writers should buy it to remind themselves of the basics.
Where can I buy this book?
Mighty Ape – here’s the link. It costs $25 and at that price, it’s a steal.
Recommended snacks to accompany reading this book?
Hmmm, this book was first published in 1976, so why not go retro with your refreshments and break out the fondue set that rocked the party (your parents or your own depending on your vintage) back in the day. Or if you don’t do the fondue, a simpler option is that 1970’s staple, cheese and pineapple sticks.