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on 23 February 2012
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. A reader is someone with an attention span of 30 seconds - a person assailed by many forces competing for attention. If the reader is lost, it's usually because the writer has not been careful enough. The sentence may be too cluttered that the reader, hacking through the verbiage, doesn't know what it means. With each rewrite Zinsser tries to make what he has written tighter, stronger and more precise. He eliminates every element that's not doing useful work. When he reads it aloud he is always amazed at how much clutter can still be cut. Every detail is worth bothering about. Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it. Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or the author's voice.
Few people realize how badly they write. You have to strip your writing down before you build it back up. If your verbs (an action or occurrence) is weak and your syntax (sentence or phrase) is rickety, your sentence will fall apart.
Sentence clutter is the enemy. Beware of the long word that is no better than the short word: assistance (help), numerous (many), initial (first), attempt (try) and hundreds more. Beware of fad words like "paradigm" or "prioritize" as they are weed words that smother writing. Just as insidious are words used to explain ourselves: I might add, It should be pointed out, due to the fact that (because), with the possible exception of (except), lacked the ability to (he couldn't), for the purpose of (for).
Zinsser recommends we put brackets around every component of a sentence that doesn't work. Common errors are an adverb that carries the same meaning as a verb (smile happily), an adjective that states a fact (tall skyscraper), qualifiers that weaken a sentence (a bit, sort of) or an unnecessary preposition appended to a verb (order up).
Other characteristics of good writing include active verbs. An active-verb style brings clarity and vigor. It's the difference between life or death for the writer. Active verbs push hard; passive verbs tug fitfully. Active words require a pronoun (he, she) and enable us to visualize the motion and activity. Verbs can carry imagery, meaning, sound and suggestion. They dazzle, glitter, scatter and poke. Good verbs make adverbs and adjectives unnecessary. Prune out small qualifiers: a bit, sort of, rather, quite, very and too. They dilute style and persuasiveness. Bad writing often uses nouns instead of verbs to tell what somebody did. Problem sentences can be solved by getting rid of them. Keep paragraphs short. Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting.
He urges us to write in the first person: to use "I"and "me" and "us" as they put up a fight. It says what we think and feel is important. There is only one of us. Nobody else thinks or feels in exactly the same way.
With more than a million copies sold "On Writing Well" has stood the test to time and remains a valuable resource for writers.
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on 23 July 2011
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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on 15 June 2015
He writes so well about writing well. A great book full of helpful insights, a real passion and the wisdom that comes from years of mastering the craft. Was also laugh out loud funny at times nd great fun.
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on 27 March 2009
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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on 22 December 2015
Excellent book on explaining non-fiction writing. Authors theories and advice are nicely explained however he does seem very opinionated on certain topics. This isn't necessarily a bad thing but it makes it difficult to critically appraise his advice. Topics are split nicely into short chapters which allow for easy navigation through the book. My one complaint would be it is at sometimes difficult to read especially when the author, lists words and phrases (sometimes without any need).
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on 15 January 2015
A great book that taught me the do's and don'ts. After reading the first few chapters, I edited my MS and cut 1100 words off one chapter. It's simple lessons and examples make it an easy and enjoyable read as well as an essential tool for all creative non-fiction writers.
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on 9 September 2012
This is the most useful book that I have found on the writing craft-- particularly, for me, because of its focus on non-fiction articles. It is an informal The Elements of Style, and I read it ever more closely, each time my inner critic strikes. Focussed chapters guide you through the perils and pleasures of genres such as travel, humour and criticism.

The author emphasises the difference between clarity and style. Clarity--through grammar, punctuation and the elimination of clutter --is the art of making things easy for the reader. With a grasp of clarity, you must then have the confidence to include what you want to say in the way you want to say it: your unique voice, the essence of style. It is a relief to hear that you must write for yourself. There is no market to satisfy, just men and women eager to read something fresh and original.

However, there is one time when you should initially keep your voice on a short leash, and that is when you return from a trip. Before you write your travel article, first rein in your puppyish over-enthusiasm about your exploits. Otherwise, you will bore your reader, just as you bore your friends and family. Calm yourself and, with a documentary-makers eye, retrace your explorations. Select only the most significant details, those that the reader most likely does not know or is least likely to guess about the place. Only then should you describe these details in your own voice, all the while guarding against the platitudes of 'travalese' where everything is "roseate," "wondrous," "fabled".

The author gives two more essential tips. First, think diligently and be absolutely clear about what you want to say, then find your own vivid language and images to express that point. Second, each and every non-fiction article should leave the reader with one, and only one, over-arching and provocative idea. On this last point, permit me to re-emphasise: Writing Well is the best-friend you never knew you had.
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on 10 August 2014
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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on 27 January 2015
I came late to this classic and I'm glad I caught up with it eventually. It's one of those rare books that starts well and gets better. Particularly so as Zinsser's warmth and enthusiasm emerge through his writing - this is a key learning point as well as a pleasure for the reader. Some fine examples too, not least from Zinsser's own work. His analysis of an article about his trip to watch the arrival of a salt caravan is both instructive and joyful.
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on 8 December 2010
As a novice writer, in 1999 I bought my first copy of 'On Writing Well' and discovered a real gem.

So straightforward and sensible, this book 'cuts to the chase' as it brings to the reader the nuts and bolts of writing non-fiction in a delightful manner. I note that a revised [35th] edition will be published in 2011.

Not only have I re-read my copy several times, I have recently bought copies for friends and family to let them share in practical advice the author has put across with such flair and wit. I strongly recommend 'On Writing Well' together with the superb companion book: ' The Elements of Style' by W Strunk and E B White.

R C Chartres, Perthshire, UK
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