Jesse J. Anderson


On Writing Well

by William Zinsser

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Summary

A must-have tome for anyone that wants to write. Surprisingly easy read that's full of wisdom and advice that is immediately applicable. I enjoyed the first half a lot, the second half felt a little bit less applicable. I skipped a couple of the later chapters that weren't applicable for me.

Notes

Qualities for good writing:

  • Confidence
  • Enjoyment
  • Intention
  • Integrity
  • Humanity
  • Warmth

Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next ... using the English language to achieve the greatest clarity and strength.

Simplicity

American writing is full of clutter: extra words, frills, and jargon.

Strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Remove every word that serves no function, every long word that could be short, every adverb with the same meaning as the verb, every confusing passive construction. These all weaken a sentence.

Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can't exist without the other.

Constantly ask yourself: what am I trying to say?

Clutter

Examine every word you put on paper, many serve no purpose.

"free up" vs. "free"

"Experiencing" is one of the worst clutterers.

"Are you experiencing pain?" vs. "Does it hurt?

Beware of long words that are no better than the short word.

"assistance" vs. "help"
"numerous" vs. "many"
"facilitate" vs. "ease"
"remainder" vs. "rest"
"initial" vs. "first"
"implement" vs. "do"
"sufficient" vs. "enough"
"attempt" vs. "try"
"referred to as" vs. "called"

Don't inflate without purpose.

"with the possible exception of" vs. "except"
"due to the fact that" vs. "because"
"he totally lacked the ability to" vs. "he couldn't"
"until such time as" vs. "until"
"for the purpose of" vs. "for"

Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author's voice. Be grateful for everything you can throw away.

Style

Few people realize how badly they write. Excess and murkiness obstructs what they are trying to say.

Be yourself

Readers want the person talking to them to sound genuine.

It may take several paragraphs or pages before a writer starts to sound like themself. Sometimes you can remove these entirely. Editor are looking for something like "I'll never forget the day when I..." to discover the actual person behind the writing.

Write in first person to sound more natural. Use "I", "me", "we", and "us".

Writing in first person can be scary, requires you to "go out on a limb" and clearly state your belief. Believe in your identity and your opinions.

Writing is an act of ego—use its energy to keep yourself going.

The Audience

If something amuses you, put it in. Don't worry too much if the reader will "get it". Writing for your enjoyment will attract the readers you're writing for.

The Paradox of Craft vs. Attitude.

Craft is mastering a precise skill, Attitude is how you use that skill to express your personality.

Think carefully about not losing the reader (Craft), but be carefree about their opinion (Attitude).

Attitude is the expressing of who you are. Relax and say what you want to say.

If you wouldn't say "indeed" or "moreover" in conversation, don't say it in writing.

Words

Journalese = a mixture of cheap words, made-up words, and cliches that many writers have a hard time not using. You must fight these phrases or you'll sound like a hack.

  • Adjectives used as nouns ("greats", "notables", "staffers")
  • Nouns used as verbs ("to host", "enthuse", "emote", "beef up", "put teeth into", "famed")

Using the nearest cliche makes your writing tired. No surprise awaits the reader. They recognize a hack and stop reading.

Writing is learned by imitation. Read the kind of writing you want to do and figure out how they did it.

Use a thesaurus with gratitude—treat it as a reminder of all the choices. And when choosing words, always consider how they sound. Readers hear what they read.

Tips for sentence variety:

  • reverse order of a sentence
  • substitute a word that has freshness or oddity
  • alter the length of your sentences (an occasional short sentence can be powerful)

Unity

You learn to write by writing. Force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis. Writing 2-3 articles a day for six months will make you a better writer.

Unity choices

  • pronoun (first, third person)
  • tense (past, present, future)
  • mood

Ask yourself these basic questions:

  • "In what capacity am I going to address the reader?" (Reporter? Provider of information? Average man or woman?)
  • "What pronoun and tense am I going to use?"
  • "What style?" (Impersonal reportorial? Personal but format? Personal and casual?)
  • "What attitude am I going to take toward the material?" (Involved? Detached? Judgmental? Ironic? Amused?)
  • "How much do I want to cover?"
  • "What one point do I want to make?"

Every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn't have before. Just one. Decide what single point you want to leave in the reader's mind. This will help define the route and destination, and your tone and attitude.

Don't be a prisoner to your plan. Blueprints can get you started, but don't let them control your flow.

The Lead

The most important sentence in any article is the first one. You can't count on readers to stick around. They want to know what's in it for them.

Your lead must capture the reader and force them to keep reading.

Ways to capture attention:

  • freshness
  • novelty
  • paradox
  • humor
  • surprise
  • an unusual idea
  • an interesting fact
  • a question

Make the reader smile and you've got them for at least one more paragraph. If you have a highly humorous quotation, find a way to use it.

Always collect more material than you will use. The more surplus of details to draw from, the stronger your article will be.

The hardest part of writing is how to begin. Your lead must grab the reader with a provocative idea and hold them while each paragraph adds more detail.

Ask yourself, "what is the piece really about?" Your material should be central to the story you've chosen to tell. Your readers should feel you know more about your subject then you've put in writing.

The Ending

A good last sentence is a joy in itself. It gives the reader a lift, and lingers when the article is over.

Bring the story full circle. In your ending, strike at the end an echo of a note that was sounded at the beginning. It pleases the reader, completing the journey you set out on together.

End with a quotation. Find a quote that has a sense of finality, or humor, or an unexpected closing detail.

If it surprises you, it will also surprise—and delight—your audience, especially as you conclude your story and send them on their way.

Verbs

Use active verbs, not passive, when you can. "Joe saw him" is stronger than "He was seen by Joe."

Verbs are your most important tool. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum.

Make active verbs activate your sentences. Be precise—use precise verbs.

Adverbs and Adjectives

Most adverbs and adjectives are unnecessary. If the concept is already in the noun or the verb, it doesn't need another word cluttering up the sentence saying the same thing.

Adverbs and adjectives that exist for decoration are a burden for the reader.

Make adjectives and adverbs do work that needs to be done, otherwise remove them.

Examples of poor usage:

  • "blared loudly"
  • "clenched tightly"
  • "smiled happily"
  • "effortlessly easy"
  • "totally flabbergasted"

Qualifiers

Prune out words that qualify what you want to say—they dilute your style and your persuasiveness:

  • "a bit"
  • "a little"
  • "sorta of"
  • "kind of"
  • "rather"
  • "quite"
  • "very"
  • "too"
  • "pretty much"
  • "in a sense"

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.

Good writing is lean and confident. Readers want a writer who believes in what they are saying. Don't be kind of bold. Be bold.

Punctuation

Don't hesitate to use a period. One sentence shouldn't do too much work. Be quick to break long sentences into shorter ones.

Don't use an exclamation point unless you must. Resist using it when making a joke or being ironic. Humor is best when understated—an exclamation point is not subtle.

Avoid contractions that have multiple meanings. (e.g. "I'd" can mean both "I had" and "I would")

Bits & Pieces

  • Concept Nouns. Avoid using common concept nouns that express a concept rather than verbs that tell what someone did. ("The common reaction is incredulous laughter" vs. "Most people just laugh with disbelief.")
  • Credibility. Don't inflate an incident to seem more outlandish—if a reader doesn't buy your statement, everything becomes suspect.
  • The Quickest Fix. Difficult problems in a sentence can often be solved by getting rid of it. Ask yourself if you need it at all—you probably don't.
  • Paragraphs. Keep your paragraphs short—remember that writing is visual.

Rewriting

Writing is an evolving process, not a finished product. It won't be right the first time, or the second time.

Put yourself in the reader's shoes:

  • Is there something they needed to know early in the sentence that you put at the end?
  • Do they know when a shift (subject, tense, tone, emphasis) has happened with this new sentence?

Read your writing aloud, always remembering where you left the reader in the previous sentence. Look for the places you lost the reader, or confused them, or told them too little, or too much. Make an arrangement that holds the sentences together from A to B.

I don't like to write; I like to have written. But I love to rewrite. I especially like to cut.

Don't annoy your readers by over-explaining. Let them figure it out. Don't use words like "surprisingly", or "predictably".

Go with your interests. If you follow your affections you will engage your readers.

Interviewing People

Make a list of likely questions. Maybe you won't need the list, but better to have them prepared. If your interviewee strays off track, decide whether to drag them back to the main narrative or follow along with the new direction.

You have an ethical duty to portray the interviewee's position accurately.

But you also have a duty to the reader who deserves coherent writing. Most people meander in conversation with irrelevant details. Stay true to the intent of what was said, but feel free to play with the quotes—selecting, rejecting, thinning, transposing their order, saving a good one for the end. Just don't change words or distort context.

Quotes are livelier when you break them up. You are the writer, don't relinquish control.

When you use a quotation, start a sentence with it—don't lead up to it.

Don't strain for synonyms to "said". Readers eyes skip over "he said" anyways.

Memoirs

If you consciously write for someone else (a teacher, an editor, etc), you'll end up writing for nobody. If you write for yourself, you'll reach the people you want to write for.

Make sure every piece of your writing is doing useful work. See that details like people, places, ideas, emotion, etc are moving your story along.

Science & Technology

When writing about complex topics, picture an upside-down pyramid. Start at the bottom with the essential fact. Then expand that thought with the second sentence, widening the base of the pyramid. Continue until you've reached a level of understanding that allows you to move into significance and speculation.

Critique

It's far easier to bury Caesar than to praise him—and that goes for Cleopatra too.

It's easy to trash talk bad art, but saying why you think a piece of art is good is difficult.

Critics should love the medium they are reviewing.

Criticism should start with an immediate effort to orient your readers. Remind them of important facts.

Humor

Humor is the secret weapon of the nonfiction writer.

Use comic devices—satire, parody, irony, lampoon, nonsense—to disguise a serious point.

"I'm here and I'm involved" should be your creed if you write serious humor. You must be willing to go against the grain, say what many won't want to hear.

All humor must be about something—it must touch concretely on life.

— S. J. Perelman

Your Voice

If you want to try a breezy style, read what you've written aloud and see if you like the sound of your voice.

Writing is like design—less is more.

Look for cliches when you rewrite and read new drafts aloud. They should sound incriminating, you're using boring retread phrases instead of coming up with something fresh.

Cliches are the enemy of taste.

Never hesitate to imitate another writer—that's part of the creative process of learning a craft. Find the best writers and read their work aloud. Learn from their voice, their attitude toward language.

The reader has to feel that the writer is feeling good, even if he isn't.

— S. J. Perelman

With each rewrite try to force your personality onto the material.

Pay attention to when you think "that's interesting." Trust that instinct and chase that curiosity.

At the end of an interview—when the pencil is away—ask "have I seen everything?" Often you'll get a few important afterthoughts once an official interview has concluded.

Write as Well as You Can

You must elevate your writing into an entertainment. Often this means delighting your reader with a surprise. When choosing a travel partner, we usually choose the one who we think will make an effort to brighten the trip.

To write better than everybody else, you have to want to write better than everybody else.

Take an obsessive pride in the smallest details of your craft.