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

John Mlinar

Let me steal from Hamlet to summarize the book as follows:POLONIUS [personified as rambling bad writing]This business is well ended.My liege and madam, to expostulateWhat majesty should be, what duty is,Why day is day, night night, and time is time,Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time.Therefore, since brevity is the soul of witAnd tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,I will be brief: your noble son is mad.Mad call I it, for, to define true madness,What is ’t but to be nothing else but mad?But let that go.GERTRUDE [personified as Zinsser and the spirit of good writing]More matter, with less art.If Zinsser had a red pen, a time machine, and permission by the bard, here is how Polonius would look:POLONIUSYour noble son is dead.GERTRUDEThanks for getting to the point.Ah, simplicity. But wait! I know that good writing is determined to some degree by what Zinsser calls his four articles of faith: clarity, simplicity, brevity, and humanity. But part of me wonders what would happen to style if the authors of history united in taking Zinssner's "more matter, less art" approach. Imagine Proust compressed to single syllables, devoid of adverbial clauses. He wouldn't be Proust anymore, would he? Imagine Philip Roth getting to the point! Half of his novels would be thrown to the flames. Nonfiction: Montaigne wouldn't be Montaigne, Hegel and Heidegger would be hanged (which I wouldn't quite mind for Hegel's sake), dear God I can't imagine the fate of Chesterton, and the entire grand collection of New Yorker articles would be scrapped from history. And Polonius: he would be dead well before he was jabbed by a misplaced rapier, his personality sapped up in a non-winding, non-rambling old dude style that just isn't anywhere nearly as interesting. Put differently, what makes Polonius who he is to a large degree is precisely his rambling spirit. And all good writers might need a streak -- only a streak! -- of Polonius in them to be great, to pull them beyond the cookie cutter of "good writing" as defined by Zinsser's articles of faith. I like writing that's easy to understand, and Zinnser proved in his classic chapbook that easy writing can also have an element of style to it. Easy writing has its place (instruction manual writers take note). But I can't help but think that at some point humanity transcends brevity, that the more a writer shows his humanity the more he works against brevity and simplicity, and the more stylistically adjectified, circuitous, but never dense his words become. The real challenge of great writing is adding an element of non-simple (but not complex), non-brief (but never over-rambling) style that identifies the writer as unique and enthralling precisely because his words emanate sparks, and sparks are by definition not simple. Briefly, great writing means making things a bit more complex and labyrinthine than necessary, given that great writers, because they're human beings, are inherently more complex and labyrinthine than their neighbors. What is necessary is what strangles spirit. I think Zinsser's points are the ultimate starting points for good writing. That is, you need to learn to write with clarity, simplicity, brevity, and humanity before you learn to write with a riskier voice, checking your particularity for excess at every paragraph, every sentence, every word. But there's an image I always have in my head when it comes to a writing-related disagreement when style is involved:Nabokov is sitting in an otherwise dark room illuminated by the halo of a night lamp, shaking his bald head and smiling with warm cynicism, and then he turns the page.


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."


Why Zinsser Still MattersSecond only to The Elements of Style, this is the best book ever written for writers. In many ways, it's better than Strunk and White, which tends to focus on grammar and the actual mechanics of writing as opposed to how a writer should think and approach things. The book focuses on nonfiction, but many (if not most) of the principles apply equally to any style of writing. Even chapters on things like how to do an interview offer valuable insights into what you're looking for when creating good characters or how to recognize and shape a characters voice.The real victory of this book though comes in rescuing writing from the pomposity of the writing world. It approaches writing from it's long abhorred but more important angle of craftsmanship. Writing is not just an art. Sure, there is art involved, but it's also a craft, a skill that can be learned and honed and developed. Writers who think of what they do as a form of magic would do well to read this book. This error in understanding is even more pervasive in the category of aspiring writers than it is in publishing.I recall hearing Neil Gaiman talk about how writers will write something, send it out, and wait for a response. If the responses come back negatively, then the writer decides that she is simply too far ahead of her time, or that the publishers simply don't understand what she was doing. "They don't get it," is the common writer's reply. Gaiman contended that the more likely truth is that what you've written simply isn't any good. Maybe it could be good if you fixed it, but it isn't now.Craft is the bridge that allows you to fix it. It can't really be fixed with art. This is a book about the craft of writing and every writer would do well to read it periodically. I try to read it every couple of years just to refresh myself. I never fail to find new insights or discover new ways to approach the problems of writing.It seems to me that writers who don't read and study this book along with a few others (The Elements of Style, On Writing, among others) are really just playing at being a writer. They are, as Alan Alda would say, "stuffing the dog".

Rachelle Rea

Great book on writing! Highly recommended!

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 .

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."

Philen Naidu

A must-have for all budding writers.Next to the right copyeditor, this book is absolutely essential to help shape you from a witer bwith an idea, to a published and polished author.

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!

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.

Viviana D. Otero

I first read On Writing Well years ago when I was assigned to co-teach a writing course for Duke University’s Talent Identification Program (TIP) the summer of 2000. I thought then, I was prepared to teach a bunch of highly intelligent teens about the elements in writing great nonfiction. It turned out, however, that I learned much more about the writing process thanks to Zinsser. The head instructor for the course had read the book and informed me that our classes would be doing so as well. Once I completed the book, I was amazed at just how little I knew about what was considered excellent writing. It was the best book I ever read in my lifetime, and I made sure I purchased the new edition once it was published. Now that I have started writing my very own memoir, it has once again come in handy. Insert On Writing Well is a perfect tool for the serious student and for the writer who just needs that little encouragement to keep typing. The renowned author’s handbook gives us many pointers on various forms of writing. As Zinsser clearly and magnificently tells us, “Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, ant it’s not a question of gimmicks to “personalize” the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.”(5) Zinsser surely practices what he preaches! I just wish Claire Messud read this book thoroughly before she wrote her novel The Emperor’s Children. On Writing Well is a must read for all who love to write!Zinsser, William. On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006.

Lawrence Epstein

This is one of my favorite books on writing, in large part because it is so well written. The advice is practical. Zinsser believes in cutting away excess prose, in using the precise word, in forming clear, crisp sentences that read well. He doesn't promise that creating such prose is easy, but this guide is a good first step.


William Zinsser, you're the man

Dawn Lennon

When a book on writing sells over a million copies, is considered a classic, and has been revised nine times, it promises to uplift and instruct in ways that propel more writers to write better. Zinsser's book was all of that and more. It's both comfort and challenge; connection and liberation. Reading it gives you a sense of community with writers and those who love to read good writing with Zinsser serving as the sage, someone at whose feet you want to sit without ever feeling subjugated.Suffice it to say, I loved this book. It both explains and shows you the why and how of good writing. It's personal too with Zinsser sharing some of his life in periodic memoir vignettes as a way of freeing writers to do the same in their work. He covers principles, methods,forms, and attitudes that drive the writing experience, giving chapters to writing about topics like travel, sports, the arts along with others on the use of humor and the importance of memoir. It's not a book that makes publishing important; it's a celebration of writing with publishing a sometimes byproduct.It's a book that inspires, encourages, and affirms the writer in all of us. I intend to keep it close.


I skimmed over a good third of this book, because it didn't quite apply to me. Still, David Gates recommended that I read it and read it I did. If you write fiction, pick it up sometime. If you write nonfiction I'd keep it next to your dictionary. This is the 30th anniversary edition and there's a reason why it's been around for so long.

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)

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