On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

ISBN: 0060891548
ISBN 13: 9780060891541
By: William Zinsser

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About this book

On Writing Well has been praised for its sound advice, its clarity and the warmth of its style. It is a book for everybody who wants to learn how to write or who needs to do some writing to get through the day, as almost everybody does in the age of e-mail and the Internet. Whether you want to write about people or places, science and technology, business, sports, the arts or about yourself in the increasingly popular memoir genre, On Writing Well offers you fundamental priciples as well as the insights of a distinguished writer and teacher. With more than a million copies sole, this volume has stood the test of time and remains a valuable resource for writers and would-be writers.

Reader's Thoughts

Austin James

Yesterday I wrote a post on "How Writing Fiction and Writing Non-Fiction are Different." I started thinking about this subject after reading William Zinsser's "On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Non-Fiction." This is one of those books that has sold over a million copies (Sorry Snooki, it looks like your book hasn't hit 9,000 yet). It's a must read for anyone who writes - especially the non-fiction writer.The book is divided into four parts...1. The Principles of Writing: If you can master the first 7 Chapters of this book - You will be a great writer (These apply to Fiction and Non-Fiction writing alike).2. Methods of Writing Non-Fiction: These 3 Chapters were my favourite. They are filled with the answers to all the things you wonder about when you write. Should I or shouldn't I? These chapters have the answers.3. Forms of Non-Fiction: This section was the least helpful to me. But for anyone who actually writes non-fiction (I'm a fiction writer), it's invaluable. Whether you are writing a memoir, or a travel book, or a sports books - you will want advice that is specific to the type of non-fiction you are writing - These chapters provide that.4. Attitudes of Writing Non-Fiction: These five closing chapters will help you find your voice, get over your fear, and create the best product you can. If it's a pep talk you need to get over your own personal writing hurdle, look here - and it's good advice too.I give the book 8 out of 10 (10 being great).- Austin James (Originally reviewed on my blog at http://www.AustinJamesHere.blogspot.com)


Zinsser's first few chapters talk solely about eliminating clutter and simplifying your work... yet his book is more than 300 pages of repetitive, hypocritical and lengthy sentences. This book could have been easily shortened to 50-100 pages. I was not a fan of his many examples (quite frankly, I skipped over most of them). Most of all, I wish Zinsser followed his own advice - simplify, and trust your material (don't feel the need to explain almost every single principle; we get it). The book, however, offered sound advice which I was lucky to dig out from the rest of the nonsense:"Be yourself.""Forget the competition and go at your own pace.""Your only contest is with yourself.""Never let anything go out into the world that you don’t understand.""Never forget where you left your reader in the previous paragraph and what they want to know next.""Your best credential is yourself.""Decide what you want to do. Then decide to do it. Then do it."

Rachelle Rea

Great book on writing! Highly recommended!


Not sure how much I can say about this book, other than it is a great text for people struggling with using grammar rules, and a sort of "storybook" for people who just want to brush up on their writing skills. Zinsser is a much-published author of non-fiction (newspapers, magazines, books), and draws on his many decades and types of experiences to guide other writers in matters of style and substance. His main focus is on helping writers develop "voice" -- the nearly indescribable style that marks the writer as an individaul -- without losing sight of the purpose of writing.On Writing Well is divided into sections that cover both the basics of writing and more specific stylistic choices that are appropriate to various types of writing (memoir, biography, and essay among them). He doesn't spend a great deal of time on the mechanics of grammar (for that see Virginia Tufte's book, "Syntax as Style" also reviewed), but focuses instead on discussions of the ways writers use grammar for effect.I enjoyed sitting down and reading straight through this book, its conversational style was easy, and the information was clear and well organized. Whether experienced or neophyte, I highly recommend this book to writers!

Ismael Galvan

I read this book because it's considered, along with The Elements of Style, as one of the best books on writing. This book is more than a collection of grammar and style rules. What I found was a lifelong craftsman expressing his love for writing well. Zinsser takes us back from our obsession with the finished product, and shows that the importance is in the work put in, namely, the rewrite.The book is geared specifically for non-fiction writers. Some parts will be irrelevant for fiction writers: sports, business, conducting interviews, etc. Though the section on science can be related to writing science fiction. Luckily, the majority of the book works for everyone.On Writing Well is famous book that can be easily found online as a pdf file. Google search "On Writing Well PDF."


A hidden gem among other books on writing, and there are plenty. I found Zinsser's book when learning to write, and learn I did.Part I and II is pure gold for a beginning writer, touching on topics like clarity, simplicity, style, in a clear and concise manner; Zinsser is a long-time journalist, so he knows his profession - you can count on him to bring you honest advice that will sometimes make you smile. For the basic, but indisposable advice presented in this part and the manner in which it is shown, I give five stars.In the second part, he slows down and writes on particular styles of nonfiction writing, which can be interesting for those that want to improve at a particular type of writing. The pace slows down, but the brilliant beginning makes the reader not to put off the book.I definitely recommend On Writing Well to anyone that wants to make his writing better in any field, be it journalism, prose or just average work letters. Are there any other Zinsser's books covering new ground that are worth it?

Michael Spotts

Turning the last page of On Writing Well, by William Zinsser, I compulsively kissed the cover—an act of grateful reverence bestowed on few books in the Spotts library, effectively Knighthood in the realm of my reading. This distinction was earned by Zinsser’s incomparable usefulness to the Writer that Would Be. Many “accomplished authors” have assumed the task of sharpening our nibs, and showed themselves little more than grammarians, or seized the chance to flaunt their cloying style and terribly terrific wit—without saying anything about the actual process of writing. But On Writing Well gives only the most functional tips. Where others drag out a trunk of fancy silverware to vainly oodle, Zinnser knows you are lost in a jungle with limited time, and hands you a few stout blades to cut through the thicket. His tools are based on a simple survival tactic: cut excess weight and get into the clear fast. It’s the difference between dead prose and living text. This is not to say his book is light on material. Spartan, yes, but not frail. In 300 pages he covers such dilemmas as: How to create a sense of persona—What sort of words and phrases to avoid—Where to get fresh ideas—How to maintain interest. But be prepared to work, because Zinsser’s key idea is, “You will write only as well as you make yourself write.” (p. 293)Just how much work goes into good writing? The Teacher himself admits in one place, “Altogether, the sentence took almost an hour.” He is quick to add, however, “I didn’t begrudge a minute of it. On the contrary, seeing it fall into place gave me great pleasure. No writing decision is too small to be worth a large expenditure of time. Both you and the reader know it when your finicky labor is rewarded by a sentence coming out right.” (p. 271)All this effort tempts writers to indulge themselves with keeping every hard-won sentence in the final draft. But good writing is as much about what you reserve as what you say. “At such moments I ask myself one very helpful question: “What is the piece really about?” (Not just “What is the piece about?”) Fondness for material you’ve gone to a lot of trouble to gather isn’t a good enough reason to include it if it’s not central to the story you’ve chosen to tell. Self-discipline bordering on masochism is required. The only consolation for the loss of so much material is that it isn’t totally lost; it remains in your writing as an intangible that the reader can sense. Readers should always feel that you know more about your subject than you’ve put into writing.” (p. 273-274)The right amount of content still means little if your ideas are jumbled. An undirected crowd quickly dissolves into an unruly mob, and text that is not strictly governed by logic will run mad, disorienting your reader:“Learning how to organize a long article is just as important as learning how to write a clear and pleasing sentence. All your clear and pleasing sentences will fall apart if you don’t keep remembering that writing is linear and sequential, that logic is the glue that holds it together, that tension must be maintained from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next and from one section to the next, and that narrative—good old-fashioned storytelling—is what should pull your readers along without them noticing the tug. The only thing they should notice is that you have made a sensible plan for your journey. Every step should seem inevitable.” (p. 265-266)On Writing Well is as biographical as it is grammatical. Zinnser illustrates his points with detours into his history as a newspaper writer for the Herald Tribune, and with anecdotes from his worldwide travels. These sidelines serve an important purpose, which is to embed the fact that nonfiction thrives on interesting details and stories which are most often found outside of the writer’s carrel. Narrative asides and unlikely points of trivia lend human feeling to your prose, but also require a lot of legwork.“As a nonfiction writer you must get on the plane. If the subject interests you, go after it, even if it’s in the next county or the next state or the next country. It’s not going to come looking for you. Decide what you want to do. Then decide to do it. Then do it.” (p. 285) “Given a choice between two traveling companions — and a writer is someone who asks us to travel with him — we usually choose the one who we think will make an effort to brighten the trip.” (p. 288)As stated above, for all but the most sainted writers, developing your craft will inevitably involve sweat, swearing, and late nights glaring at a rebellious blank page. The sentence you want is often huddling in the corner behind a half-wrought, mangy animal that hisses until you get up the courage to make it submit. Don’t be intimated. Keep at it, and you’ll eventually dominate the phrase so that it becomes man’s best friend.“The final advantage is the same one that applies in every other competitive venture. If you would like to write better than everybody else, you have to want to write better than everybody else. You must take an obsessive pride in the smallest details of your craft. And you must be willing to defend what you’ve written against the various middlemen – editors, agents and publishers — who sights may be different from yours, whose standards not as high. Too many writers are browbeaten into settling for less than their best.” (p. 289)Eventually you will master the mechanics of strong English. You’ll breath the four cardinal maxims—Brevity, Clarity, Simplicity, Humanity—as your native air. From there, you will begin speaking with a new tongue, one unique to you, composed of your tastes and experience—your style. Once you gain your voice, whatever you do, fight for it. Editors and self-made critics will suggest you scrub your text of those flavorful nuances that make it your own. But, says Zinsser, “if you allow your distinctiveness to be edited out, you will lose one of your main virtues. You will also lose your virtue.” (p. 292)Final Verdict: If you want to improve your prose, leave all and sit for a while at the feet of Zinsser.

Paul Dinger

This is a book I have always had on my shelf. When I took senior Composition in college, this was the text the professor had us buy, but we never used. Since I had heard references to it often through out student teaching, I kept it and it has always been on my shelf, and I always promised I would read it. Well I finally did, and I can say I wish I had read it before because it would have saved me a lot of heart and headache. When I bought it, I thought I understood grammar which I really didn't until I taught it. Now I think had I read it before, grammar wouldn't have been such a mystery. Anyway, it is interesting how the rules of good writing as Zinsser outlines them plays out in my own reading and writing. How I strive in my reading for clarity which is often absent in my own writing. I do think I will look at sentences in a new way, and I have a wonderful teaching resource that I will call on again and again.

Paula Cabezas

When I read this book I was hopping to find an inside to how people should layout their words in English. An English writing 101 or something in that vein.What I found however was just a long don't-do list. Examples of good or bad writing follow by an explanation.And even if some of the points could be useful, I dislike the way the author show them (they look more like tips than guides).I really don't know whom would be the ideal reader for this book, as being a book about non fictional writing I was hoping it was meant to be read by people with an academical background but it seems like quite the opposite. This book is meant for the people that just want to write a travel journal or to leave loving notes to their partners, and for me that is the biggest crime the book commits. It teaches you to write without a porpoise. The book never bothers to tell you how different can be to right a comment to an editorial or a speech. But it has no problem in reducing scientific writing as a mere description of a process that you could do to amaze yourself .

Vasyl Pasternak

I wish this book will read everyone. It is focused on English texts but the main principles will be true for all languages in the world - be clear, be short, be confident. And the main one - if you don't know what to say - say nothing.


This is a book about writing non-fiction. At the same time-surprising for me at least- it is a book about writing interesting, beautiful and artistic non-fiction. I am a researcher myself and I write a lot of professional text. But as a researcher I was never educated in writing well. This is the book I was missing. It pointed me to a lot of mistakes that I have done in my writing for many years --not grammatical but aesthetic and literary mistakes.This is probably not the best book out there about the topic-- And I notice some of the reviewers are not very happy with the writing style and personality of Zinsser. But it is a book that covers most aspects of writing that I needed. I am very satisfied with it and will probably read it in the future-- I have already made a check list for my own writing based on the topics from this book.A central point of the book is simplicity- a topic that is repeated many times in the book in different chapters. Editing your text is essentially about eliminating the unnecessary. Clear writing comes from a clear mind and from clear ideas. It comes from many rounds of editing and refining and eliminating clutter. A second central point is about being genuine. We often take on a completely different personality when we start writing. We become formal, or try to be funny-- and nervous. It is difficult to relax and be yourself when you write for an audience. This mistake is what eventually makes your writing suck. Other points in the book are about using a rich vocabulary, having unity at different levels, create good leads and ends etc. If you write a lot professionally, and think writing is boring, I recommend you read this book. It gets 4 stars because it got a bit boring towards the end.


This a clear, thorough guide on writing well and writing authentically. For those who always hesitate to explain the desire to be a writer isn't synonymous with being Hemingway, the author offers a spirited defense of creative nonfiction. He also argues for the interest of the reader, pointing out what may be of interest to you may not translate directly into something someone else wants to read. Reading this in just a few sittings, his strong opinions can grate on ones' nerves at points. His reliance on his own writing experiences, intended to be instructional, verge on pompous. The book foes not effectively inspire you to write--Writing Down the Bones and Annie Dillard remain the primary resources for that instinct. But overall I recommend this book as a resource to sharpen your skills and sensitivities.

Christina Hibbert

A terrific guide "on writing well"--pretty much my nonfiction writing bible. Gave me loads of practical and snappy ideas for how to improve my book and other writing!


William Zinsser, you're the man

Cathy DuPont

With Steve's review, I was reminded that I had read this years ago and it's in my "book closet" where I have all my writing reference books. When did I read it? Well, I would have to think back and I can figure it out but it will take a while and I would rather be reading than go down that particular "memory lane." Five stars indicates what I thought of this book and glad to know that it's contents are still valid today.

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