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On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction Paperback – 2 Sep 2006


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Product details

  • Paperback: 321 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers; 30 Anv Rep edition (2 Sep 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060891548
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060891541
  • Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 1.9 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 48,700 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

About the Author

William Zinsser has been a mentor for countless people who want to write with clarity and confidence. His eighteen books include the classic On Writing Well, which has sold almost 1.5 million copies. He now teaches at the New School and at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.


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First Sentence
A school in Connecticut once held "a day devoted to the arts," and I was asked if I would come and talk about writing as a vocation. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Niki Collins-queen, Author TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 23 Feb 2012
Format: Paperback
A "New York Times" reviewer said William Zinsser's "On Writing Well" is "a bible for a generation of writers looking for clues to clean, compelling prose." I couldn't agree more. After reading the first draft of my book's manuscript an editor recommended I read Zinsser's book. It revolutionized how I wrote. I think of my writing career as before and after Zinsser.
Zinsser calls On Writing Well a craft book. He set out 25 years ago to teach the craft of writing warmly and clearly, He has revised and expanded it five times since 1976.
He says the clarity and strength of good writing gives it aliveness and keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next. The principles of good writing can be learned.
Rewriting is the essence of writing well: We all have an emotional equity in our first draft; we can't believe it wasn't born perfect. But the odds are close to 100% that it wasn't. The newly hatched sentence almost always has something wrong with it.
Zinsser says clutter is the disease of American writing. The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that's already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what - these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. For example in the 1960s the president of Zinsser's university told alumni, "You are probably aware that we have been experiencing very considerable explosive expressions of dissatisfaction on issues partially related." Instead he could simply have said, "The students have been hassling them about different things."
Zinsser's mantra is simplify, simplify.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Samuel J. Parkinson on 23 July 2011
Format: Library Binding
Zinsser made his name as a journalist on the New York Herald Tribune, and it shows. His instruction on how to write is superficial, racing over sports writing, memoirs, science, business and so on. If you want to write like a journalist, fun but not deep, there are some good examples here.

He teaches by example, rarely explaining how to do it yourself. His examples are often clunky - not great writing. The worst are from his own writing - some dull and superficial.

If you don't know a lot about American culture or journalism, much of the book will fall flat. To use one chapter properly you will need to appreciate Red Smith, baseball reporter from the New York Herald Tribune.

Examples from his own writing are self-congratulatory: he tells us we'll never look at hair-curlers in the same way again, after reading him lampoon them, and that we'll be irrevocably hooked by his enthralling openings. I wasn't.

The book is well written - in his jaunty newsman's style. It is easy to read. It has some quirky and interesting examples. But if you want to write better, read Strunk & White for yourself, and perhaps Stanley Fish's "How to Write a Sentence" - not perfect, but something that actually deconstructs good writing and shows why it works.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Mr. S. D. Halliday on 27 Mar 2009
Format: Paperback
Zinsser's book, first published in the 70s, is part how-to, part autobiography and part travelogue. I say travelogue because he writes by telling us about the landmarks in 'good writing', the individuals who populate it and the methods that we should adopt to understand and better relate to good writing. His book verges on ethnography.

Echoing messages from Strunk & White; Booth, Colomb & Williams; McCloskey; Cook and several others, Zinsser endorses a writing style derived from accurate verbs and precise nouns. I believe this is the best advice he could give and he provides many motivations for his claims about style.

One Amazon reviewer felt let-down by Zinsser's continuous referral to his own writing processes, the reviewer wanted something even more 'how-to'. I found this criticism odd. Zinsser describes a method to write, contextualised in his work. He repeats that a writer needs to write and edit, write and edit. He describes several ways to do this. He instructs the reader on methods for given subject matter and applies his methods by conjuring examples from his extensive knowledge of good writing, as well as his acquaintance with poor writing. Additionally, I have not read any writing guide that was 'independent' of its author, in fact if such a guide were written it would probably be hollow and vapid. For example, Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, my preferred editing and style guide, is definitely not independent of White's preferences. So I say read the book and enjoy Zinsser's insight into writing well. I treasure this book already, both for its content and for the list of references to high quality writing. I shall probably refer to it many times in the future.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
As you would expect this is very well written and gives clear guidance on how to improve your writing. It is litterd with fantastic examples and anecdotes to brighten up what can be a dry subject. It lacks some of the charm of Eats, shoots and leaves. but makes up for it in depth.

Having studied Journalism a decade ago I wish I'd had this book then. It taught me everything I should have learnt but was never taught. It demonstrates the subtleties of using the English language. Which, it seems to me, that between school, college and uni they expect you to learn but never actually teach. It took me only a week to read this book and I am a more confident writer as a result. There are some chapters that are specific to particular types of writing such as sports, or memoir so you can skip these if not suitable for your needs. This book is written by a journalist and so it is geared around getting you to write snappier more engaging pieces that would suit the news or feature stories. I wouldn't recommend it for academic writing so much.

My only criticism is Zinsser's attempt to wipe out the semi-colon in favour of the dash. How will we wink then ;)
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