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On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction Library Binding – 9 May 2006
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This is non-optional reading for all writers and professional, aspirational people in general.
If you write non-fiction then this book is really a must for the bookshelf. I’ve just finished my second reading of it and William Zinsser has left me with a strong urge to write something – anything, just so I can begin to play with some of his ideas.
In parts, the text feels dated. Mind you the original was written in 1976. This edition is the sixth, published in 1998 with major revisions. Some of it I found a little dry – though no less valuable for that. But there were sections I actually found hard to put down. Chapter 23, the second to last, I struggled to let go of. In it the author dissects an article he wrote and even goes into detail about why he might choose one word over another, why the piece was structured the way it was, and why he ended it when he did. It fascinated me and made me realise that I need to pay a lot more attention to what I’m doing when I write.
I wasn’t expecting the cleverness and word play that the author makes frequent use of, but as I began to get used to his style, these hidden gems became more obvious to me and I realised that he was just having fun writing a book about writing.
I’m going to put it on my bookshelf and pick it up in about twelve months time, when I will enjoy it even more.
As I was looking to post this review I noticed that there is a more recent edition (2006) available, so you might want to check out that version.
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 ;)