Tag Archives: William Zinsser

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.

View all my reviews

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.


The slow death of logical thought

In recent years I’ve tutored students at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism whose writing is disorganized almost beyond human help, but they seldom mention “writing” as what they came to the school to learn. … They return from a reporting assignment with a million notes and a million quotes and no idea what the story is about.

The reason, I assume–and I don’t expect a Nobel Prize for this deduction–is that people now get their information mainly from random images on a screen and from random messages in their ears, and it no longer occurs to them that writing is linear and sequential; sentence B must follow sentence A. Every year student writing is a little more disheveled; I’m witnessing the slow death of logical thought. So is every English teacher in America.

William Zinsser

The point of the place

A few years ago I used that passage in my memoir-writing class to suggest how to write about a place. Mere facts, I said, aren’t sufficient (“our house was on Spruce Street,” “the neighbors had a dog named Spot”). The task is to find the point of the place—its identifying idea. It may be waiting for you to find it. Or you may have to impose on the place some larger idea of your own.

William Zinsser


Some of our most creative work gets done in downtime–waking from a nap, taking a walk, daydreaming in the shower. (Writers are particularly clean.) Downtime is when breakthrough ideas are delivered to us, unsummoned, when yesterday’s blockages somehow come unblocked. That’s because we treated ourselves to a little boredom and cleared our brains of the sludge of information. Try it.

William Zinsser

Prior Decisions

As a teacher I often think of Thoreau’s dictum. Much of the trouble that writers get into is caused by cart-before-the-horse disease. Writers fixate on the successful final product, forgetting that they will only create that product if they start at the beginning and get the process right. I’ve found that most writers embarking on a memoir can already picture the jacket of the book. They can also see the narrative line of their story in its seamless chronology. Their only problem is how to find an agent and get the book published. They have thought of everything except how to write the book: all the prior decisions—matters of shape, content, tone, and attitude.

William Zinsser


Book-lined rooms were part of our shared domestic landscape. To walk into a house with books was an unspoken promise of conversation that would jump beyond the events of the day. Brightly colored book jackets, waving for attention, were also good companions, a linear museum of handsome typography and graphic design through the decades.

William Zinsser

You only need to tell your story

My writing students have been bringing family images to my memoir class for 20 years. They are mainly women, painfully eager to know how to use writing to make sense of their life narrative–who they are, who they once were, what heritage they were born into–and they are immobilized by the size of the task. Where to start? Where to stop? What to put in? What to leave out? How to find the story’s proper shape and sequence? How to deal equitably with all that is still unreconciled…

I sympathize with their despair; there’s just much too much stuff in the cluttered attic of memory. I can only offer one word of salvation: Reduce! You must decide what is primary and what is secondary. You’re not required to tell everybody’s story; you only need to tell your story. If you give an honest accounting of the important people and events in your life, as you best remember them, you will also tell the story of everybody who needs to be along on the ride. Throw everything else away.

William Zinsser

All work is equally honorable

It may seem perverse that I compare my writing to plumbing, an occupation not regarded as high-end. But to me all work is equally honorable, all crafts an astonishment when they are performed with skill and self-respect. Just as I go to work every day with my tools, which are words, the plumber arrives with his kit of wrenches and washers, and afterward the pipes have been so adroitly fitted together that they don’t leak. I don’t want any of my sentences to leak. The fact that someone can make water come out of a faucet on the 10th floor strikes me as a feat no less remarkable than the construction of a clear declarative sentence.

William Zinsser

A sense of enjoyment

When I write I make a conscious effort to generate a sense of enjoyment–to convey to my readers that I found the events I’m describing more than ordinarily interesting, or unusual, or amusing, or emotional, or bizarre. Otherwise why bother to describe them? I also try to convey the idea that I was feeling great when I did my writing–which I almost never was; writing well is hard work. But readers have a right to believe that you were having a good time taking them on your chosen voyage.

William Zinsser