On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, Seventh Edition, by William Zinsser. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016. 336 pp. $10.07 (paperback).
William Zinsser’s On Writing Well is an outstanding guide for anyone who writes nonfiction. Whether you write emails or op-eds, family histories or scientific papers, reading and integrating Zinsser’s Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction is sure to prove of immense value.
William Zinsser (1922–2015) began his writing career as a journalist at the New York Herald Tribune at the age of twenty-four. He made his living as a writer and editor, contributing to scores of well-known publications before going on to teach writing at Yale University, as well as The New School and Columbia University. First published in 1976, On Writing Well (one of Zinsser’s eighteen books) is now in its seventh edition and has sold more than one million copies.
Though the book’s four sections—Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes—might seem to forecast a disjointed, academic tome, Zinsser’s book is in fact a lilting, entertaining narrative crafted to deliver the penetrating insights of a man who devoted his life to writing well and teaching others the art.
Zinsser says, “Writers are obviously at their most natural when they write in the first person,” and he acts on this observation, telling stories from his career as a writer and teacher to illustrate the principles of prose (20).
Along the way, Zinsser calls attention to common pitfalls. “Clutter is the disease of American writing,” he says (6).
We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon. . . . Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important. . . . But 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. (6–7)
Zinsser champions strict word economy. He warns, “The man or woman snoozing in a chair with a magazine or a book is a person who was being given too much unnecessary trouble by the writer. . . . If the reader is lost, it’s usually because the writer hasn’t been careful enough” (8). Carelessness and a lack of regard for the reader’s context “usually occur in proportion to [a writer’s] education and rank” (7).
Zinsser is revelatory, detailed, and even amusing. And he provides plenty of concrete examples to help writers understand his principles. For instance, “‘Up’ in ‘free up’ shouldn’t be there” (12). The book also contains many illuminating analogies. Stressing the similarities between writing and “any other project that requires logic,” Zinsser draws an analogy with carpentry, observing:
It’s first necessary to be able to saw wood and to drive nails. Later you can bevel the edges or add elegant finials, if that’s your taste. But you can never forget that you are practicing a craft that’s based on certain principles. If the nails are weak, your house will collapse. If your verbs are weak and your syntax is rickety, your sentences will fall apart. . . . First, then, learn to hammer nails, and if what you build is sturdy and serviceable, take satisfaction in its plain strength. (18)
How can one achieve that plain strength? Zinsser aptly observes, “Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English” (8).
In addition to discussing broad principles, Zinsser focuses on how to produce specific types of writing: interviews, travel articles, memoirs, science and business writing, sports writing, arts criticism, and the seldom discussed, perpetually underrated genre of humor writing. This last will have you convinced that many good humor writers are “not just fooling around. They are as serious in purpose as Hemingway or Faulkner,” and perhaps, in some cases, they are even better writers (208).
Zinsser’s discussion of gauging an audience, however, is less illuminating than the majority of the book. He says, “You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for” (25). Zinsser acknowledges a “paradox” between his ideas on audience and his prior comments about the writer’s responsibility to be clear: “Earlier I warned that the reader is an impatient bird, perched on the thin edge of distraction or sleep. Now I’m saying you must write for yourself and not be gnawed by worry over whether the reader is tagging along.” Toward reconciling this paradox, he makes this unfortunately imprecise distinction: “The first is a question of mastering a precise skill. The second is a question of how you use that skill to express your personality” (25).
He goes on to say, “On the larger issue of whether the reader likes you, or likes what you are saying or how you are saying it, or agrees with it, or feels an affinity for your sense of humor or your vision of life, don’t give him a moment’s worry” (25). As Zinsser points out, these questions are unhelpful. It’s of no value to a writer to know whether the reader feels “an affinity” for his sense of humor. On the other hand, considering what the reader is likely to know and what his motivations are is not only helpful, but necessary. If you’re writing for high-schoolers about computers, you’ll likely need to approach the topic differently than you would if you were writing for a group of retirees.1 Oddly, Zinsser repeatedly blurs the distinction between considerations of style and those of substance, later writing, “I’ve never changed my style to fit the size or the presumed education of the audience I was writing for” (295). I suspect Zinsser would agree that though he would retain his style, he would also accommodate his audience with regard to substance.
Nonetheless, here's one gem of a principle in this chapter: “Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation” (26). In my experience, if you do nothing else but read your writing aloud and ask yourself whether you’d speak the way you’ve written, your writing is bound to improve dramatically.
Zinsser’s discussion of usage will leave some readers wanting. Although his stories typically illustrate practicable principles, the author’s stories in this chapter (about serving on a panel for The American Heritage Dictionary) are less helpful. He describes the panelists as writers of various backgrounds “who were known for caring about the language and trying to use it well” (38). Their job was to comment on whether new words should be added to the dictionary. In answering the question “Why is one word good and another cheap?” Zinsser evidences the limits of a writer who does not grasp the nature of concept formation and validation:
I can’t give you an answer, because usage has no fixed boundaries. Language is a fabric that changes from one week to another, adding new strands and dropping old ones, and even word freaks fight over what is allowable, often reaching their decision on a wholly subjective basis such as taste (“notables” is sleazy). (38)
Though he fails to articulate his own principle regarding usage, Zinsser recognizes a crucial truth when he sees it. “Our apparent rule of thumb,” as he recalls the process of appraising words, “was stated by Theodore M. Bernstein, author of the excellent The Careful Writer: ‘We should apply the test of convenience. Does the word fill a real need? If it does, let’s give it franchise’” (40). This endorsement shows that Zinsser is not committed to the idea that words can or should be judged “on a wholly subjective basis” (38). Rather, proper concepts identify and integrate facts of reality in ways that help us think.
The key virtue of Zinsser’s book is the clarity he brings to the writing process—clarity through which he provides powerful tools for writers to achieve greater clarity in their own writing.
Zinsser also sparks curiosity and interest. He speaks lovingly of the many authors and works he admires and his reasons for esteeming them. His enthusiasm evinces the feeling of being pointed toward buried treasure. Every reference seems worth seeking out.
Some readers may come away from On Writing Well dejected by the realization that writing is incredibly hard work. Others will be inspired, as Zinsser was by his father, a small-business owner.
He had a passion for quality and had no patience with the second-rate; he never went into a store looking for a bargain. He charged more for his product because he made it with the best ingredients, and his company prospered. . . . Only later did I realize that I took along on my journey another gift from my father: a bone-deep belief that quality is its own reward. (296–97)
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1. This is an unfortunate miss, but thankfully, writers can turn to other books, such as Ayn Rand’s The Art of Non-Fiction for a better discussion of the issue of audience. Also, Rand’s discussion of the role in writing of the conscious and subconscious mind dovetails nicely with the “paradox” Zinsser never untangles.