7: On Writing Well

On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing NonfictionOn Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Knowlton Zinsser

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Borrowed from the VPL.

Read in February 2013.

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Here are some notes I took. I feel like I’m quoting myself; so many of these points are things I say all the time.

  • “Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important.” (7) We think if a sentence is too simple, there must be something wrong with it. ha!
  • Simplify! Clear the clutter.
  • “My reason for bracketing superfluous words instead of crossing them out was to avoid violating the students’ sacred prose.” (17) ha!
  • carpentry analogy: simple and solid first, learn to embellish later—comes with practice
  • deliberately embellishing is like wearing a toupee. be yourself. (I need to remember that one.)
  • first paragraphs and pages can be discarded!
  • use “I”—take responsibility for your ideas!
  • write for yourself, in the sense that you shouldn’t worry “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” (27)
  • think about how you writing sounds—read aloud
  • usage changes, but…
    • avoid jargon. be precise.
    • be liberal with new words and phrases.
    • be conservative with grammar.
  • think small—try to leave the reader with one provocative thought
  • nonfiction can be literature; it’s not inferior to fiction
  • interviews:
    • take notes; record only as backup. “Be a writer. Write things down.” (70)
    • quotes will need to be moved around, spliced together—but do not fabricate!
  • places are second only to people
  • memoir—narrowness of focus, like a window or photograph into a life
  • science writing
    • “describe how a process works”—exercise that helps people learn to write more clearly
    • think of science writing as an upside-down pyramid—start with one fact the reader needs to know, then build from there
  • jargon = people wanting to sound important. hahaha. yes.
  • “I consider it a privilege to be able to shape my writing until it’s as clean and strong as I can make it. … Students, I realize, don’t share my love of rewriting. They regard it as some kind of punishment, or extra homework. Please—if you’re such a student—think of it as a gift.  You’ll never write well unless you understand that writing is an evolving process, not a one-shot product.” (187-188)
  • distinction between a critic and a reviewer: “As a reviewer your job is more to report than to make an aesthetic judgment.” (215)

This was an older edition of the book, so some of the examples and advice (try a word processor! you’ll like it!) were dated. There’s a newer, 20th anniversary edition that I’m sure resolves those issues.

I think this should be required reading for 1st year university/college students. So much of it is stuff I find myself explaining to 3rd, 4th, 5th years—but I never know how much takes. Especially with certain students who seem to interpret tips like “simple is better” to mean “I’m too dumb to understand your deep thoughts,” having a “textbook” that backs me up might make them more likely to take my advice seriously.