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

Farnoosh Brock

I love William Zinsser’s writing style. He writes about the English language and yet it reads like poetry in several parts. While he is certainly not one with a small vocabulary and knowledge of the language, he writes ever so clearly. With his writing, less is really more and right delivery of the words on paper lies at the heart of all writing.According to Zinsser, and perhaps countless writers, writing is hard work. It is no easy task to produce good and original content regularly. It takes discipline, determination, practice, daily effort, and countless reviews of what you have written, including a read out loud, for the result to become polished and worthwhile. The room to grow and improve is large, and our efforts should be to fill that room someday.Zinsser is commanding, bold and brazen in giving advice and delivering his points for the sake of better use of the English Language. He wants us to simplify, and to have a purpose for each word we use. He wants us to use far less clutter. The secret, he says, is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. His fabulous example of our freedom from clutter is a beautiful piece from the Walden, which I must repeat for your sake:“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach me, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”Clutter takes away from the strength of our message and adds an air of pomposity to our writing. The chapter on Clutter is my favorite. He entertains while berates us for letting the American language become so infested by clutter and redundancy.What then would be our style, if all of us strip all our sentences to their bare bones? In response, Zinsser tells us to first strip and simplify, and understand what is clutter and what is essential. Then build your style around that correct foundation.I love how well William Zinsser can articulate any abstract concept in the realm of writing. In The Sound of your Voice chapter, he articulates style for us. Whatever our style, he tells us not to be crude, verbose, corny, and hence contemptuous of the English language. Stay away from cliches, and be fresh and original, he repeats over and over.The last pages of the book are some of the best and most inspiring for the English Language lover. Zinsser reminds us that verbs have more vigor than nouns, that active verbs are better than passive verbs, that short words are easier to read than long ones, and that if you would like to write better than every one else, you have to want to write better more than everybody else.

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.


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!


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.

♥ Ibrahim ♥

Books on writing can be intimidating but this books is charming and makes me want to read more and more. This book is written "well" by a man who knows how to "Write Well." It is by no means a compliment to tell Zinser that anybody can write and we all can take up writing on the side. No. Writing is a craft rather than an art and we have to work at it. Our writing should be simple and clutter-free. Clear thinking becomes clear writing. Therefore, to write is always to rewrite over and over and once again we rewrite what we have written. Writing should not be impacted by moods but it is a job and if your job is to write, you learn to do it like any other job. I liked the fact that Zinser would give examples of his own writing (see pages 9 and 10) and how he would show us how what written in the first eidition of On Writing Well had already been rewritten and retyped four or five times. He tries to make what he has written tighter, stronger and more precise. This is particularly helpful for me as Arabic is my native tongue and we tend to be flowery, redundant, repetitive, wordy, excessive in our imagery. But this won't work in English writing. He has taught me to constantly ask: What am I trying to say? Then I look at what I have written and ask: Have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time? I enjoyed what he had to say on style as it is organic to who we are. I should write as a person and people should feel that they are reading for a person, not a machine. I also enjoyed what he had to say on unity of tense and unity of mood and all the other ideas that he presents as one having mastered his craft. I plan to read every book of Zinser as a result of reading this book. This is a man worthy of my ultimate respect.


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?


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.

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.


On Writing Well may primarily focus on non-fiction, but parts of it should be required reading for novelists, as well. Though, at first, Zinsser’s advice may seem anal–retentive and persnickety, it is great for keeping your work focused and making your sentences sharper. The best part of On Writing Well focuses on“trimming the fat in the sentences you write. Zinsser provides a hand-edited page of his own On Writing Well manuscript as an example of how to cut down on useless words, and it is truly amazing to see how much even an expert writer like him can remove from his work without its losing any meaning or artistic merit. Not only should you eliminate useless words, but, according to Zinsser, you should also avoid using large words when smaller ones will suffice. I think this is especially good advice for fiction because, the easier a novel is to read, the more easily readers can lose themselves in it. I admit to being a fan of Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur (which Zinsser despises for its verbosity), but I can certainly see his main point, which can be summed up as, “Easy reading is damn hard writing"—to quote Hawthorne. Some writers (i.e. Faulkner, Joyce, etc.) can get away with breaking the rules because, as Zinsser states, they were geniuses. But, for the rest of us, getting the point across succinctly is the best way to satisfy our readers, should we be lucky enough to have any. Using active sentences as often as possible further helps make our writing more interesting, both in fiction and non-, and, of course, in fiction, you also need to provide readers with a “hook” in order to ensnare them in your narrative. Knowing the exact meanings of words causes readers to put faith in you, and it’s important not to misuse or confuse them. Zinsser recommends keeping a dictionary handy at all times, which is an idea I am trying to take to heart. Zinsser’s view of writing is that it is hard, arduous work—something the fiction writer should keep in mind because people tend to get the wrong impression that writing fiction amounts to little more than daydreaming at a desk all day. Nothing could be further from the truth: Great writers must be extremely meticulous and precise in their art, both in regard to story and the proper use of the English language. Reading Zinsser’s book is pretty discouraging in that it focuses mostly on the aspects of writing that people find most boring, however important they may be. Serious writers will, however, find it indispensible.

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.


William Zinsser, you're the man

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.


"Living is the trick. Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That's almost the whole point of becoming a writer. I've used writing to give myself an interesting life and a continuing education. If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write. Learning is a tonic." I like this paragraph a lot. I think it is true. It reminds me of Elizabeth Gilbert working at Coyote Ugly and writing an article about it.There are some portions of this text that make me sigh at Zinsser's attitude -- there's some serious Yale-y-ness happening at some points -- but on the whole it's very instructive. The chapter on travel writing is just perfect: nails the muddled styles of blogs, essays, writing fragments of people on journeys. (The issue is that they fail to select one style for their writing.)In terms of heart, though -- on the topic of writing nonfiction, I would recommend Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd's Good Prose over this book.

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.


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."

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