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On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Non-Fiction

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"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 ar "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.


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"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 ar "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.

30 review for On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Non-Fiction

  1. 4 out of 5

    Roy Lotz

    It’s always intimidating setting out to write a review of a book on writing. One feels naked, exposed—now you have to prove that you’ve learned something. Lucky for me, I am a creature with little shame, so I’ll let my prose all hang out. After reading Pragmatism by the American philosopher William James, I’ve realized that some American qualities cut deep. We are a people who love action and despise abstract argument. We like to see efficiency and real-world results. We set ourselves a goal an It’s always intimidating setting out to write a review of a book on writing. One feels naked, exposed—now you have to prove that you’ve learned something. Lucky for me, I am a creature with little shame, so I’ll let my prose all hang out. After reading Pragmatism by the American philosopher William James, I’ve realized that some American qualities cut deep. We are a people who love action and despise abstract argument. We like to see efficiency and real-world results. We set ourselves a goal and go straight for it. Perhaps this American temper is part of the “Protestant Ethic," made so famous by Max Weber. Whatever it is, it’s on full display here. What Zinsser is doing in this book is applying a capitalist sensibility to prose. Keep it simple. Economize. Cut out the fat. Go straight for the point. Zinsser’s approach to writing is that of a factory owner seeking to improve his business model. This leads him to a straightforward adoption of the axioms of The Elements of Style. In fact, this book is hardly more than a commentary, expansion, and application of Strunk and White’s ideas. I grow tired of this. The more I read, the more I realize that what constitutes good style cannot be put into a formula. It varies from person to person, from subject to subject, from country to country, and from age to age. Zinsser’s writing-style is nice enough. But I’m sure his conversational tone would sound coarse and inelegant to many readers. Where’s the poetry? Where’s the lofty argument and philosophical reflection? Of course, you can’t please everybody. What bothers me is that Zinsser doesn’t seem realize how provincial are his ideas. What you will learn in this book is how to do a specific type of writing: journalistic nonfiction. It’s writing well-suited to its purpose—to provide entertainment and light education for casual readers. This is a great skill, and Zinsser has some great advice. If you have aspirations to work for a newspaper or a magazine—or even write a popular non-fiction book—I would highly recommend this book. I have no problem with this kind of writing-style—my mother is a journalist. But it hardly runs the whole gamut of nonfiction. And for pretentious me, Zinsser comes across as a bit vulgar. His conception of language is narrow. He wishes only to hook the reader, crack a few jokes on the way, maybe include some light food for thought, and make a quick exit. It’s like an ad on TV. But often non-fiction writers have—dare I say it?—higher aspirations. And a quick-shooting, hard-hitting, punchy prose style just won’t do the trick. I should temper my criticisms. I’ve read too much illegible academic scrawling to be insensitive to the value of concreteness and simplicity. As general rules, they’re safe to abide by. And if you are writing as a craft—a professional email for example—then you would do well to follow Zinsser’s advice. Where this book falls short is Zinsser’s insensitivity to the artistic potential of the written word. He admits this himself I have an unbroken record of missing the deeper meaning in any story, play or movie, and as for dance and mime, I have never had any idea of what is being conveyed. I commend Zinsser for his honesty. But for several genres of writing, an overly-literal mindset is a death-sentence. And in any genre, a great metaphor is worth fifteen spiffy sentences and peppy paragraphs. At its best, non-fiction writing is more than chuckles and trivia—it can be just as profound as the best novel or poem. (Read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire if you don’t believe me.) Zinsser does have a chapter entitled “Nonfiction as Literature,” but it quickly becomes clear that he regards even Nabokov’s memoir as a kind of journalism. So if you wish to read a snappy book on snappy writing, On Writing Well satisfies. But be warned: this is simply an elegant articulation of one philosophy of style. And there are as many different philosophies of style as there are great writers. And Zinsser is a good writer, not a great one.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Rowena

    Brilliant book!I definitely learned a lot of extremely useful advice from this book. I learned about the writing mistakes that I was making, and also how to enrich my own writing. Zinsser's tone and sense of humour made reading the book fun and interesting. This is the kind of book I would re-read every now and then for inspiration.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Francisco

    How do you learn to write, really, other than by writing. But now and then, it's good to pause and think about the art of good writing, the craft. This famous little book can be the reflective pause that will help you be care-full, love-full, with your work. The book is not just more of the same old stuff you've always heard. The advice given by the author is creative and his examples of good writing are informative and insightful. And because good writing is always connected to the inner life a How do you learn to write, really, other than by writing. But now and then, it's good to pause and think about the art of good writing, the craft. This famous little book can be the reflective pause that will help you be care-full, love-full, with your work. The book is not just more of the same old stuff you've always heard. The advice given by the author is creative and his examples of good writing are informative and insightful. And because good writing is always connected to the inner life and moral depth of the author, much of what he says applies to the ultimate source of the written word: the writer's attitude, her attention and integrity. Don't let the "nonfiction" in the title deter you from reading this if you write fiction. The chapter on "travel writing" is an on-the-button presentation on the creation of "place" which is essential in fiction. Read slowly, let the humor and common sense of the author seep into your writing blood so that it may flow out spontaneously in your words. But maybe the best gift this book will give you is the sense that you, the writer, are but a humble, ordinary worker using skill, intelligence and heart to create something beautiful and true.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Alissa

    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, h 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."

  5. 5 out of 5

    Shanae

    This book may have a few valuable suggestions throughout, but it is difficult to reap Zinsser's lessons through his sexism and eurocentrism. He uses his own work (Haircurl) in the "Humor" chapter for no good reason because he really doesn't do anything with it except to show that it is funny. Unfortunately, it is not funny, and it is actually quite offensively mocking women. In "A Writer's Decisions" he describes a piece he wrote with thickly layered romanticism about a desert tribe that exotici This book may have a few valuable suggestions throughout, but it is difficult to reap Zinsser's lessons through his sexism and eurocentrism. He uses his own work (Haircurl) in the "Humor" chapter for no good reason because he really doesn't do anything with it except to show that it is funny. Unfortunately, it is not funny, and it is actually quite offensively mocking women. In "A Writer's Decisions" he describes a piece he wrote with thickly layered romanticism about a desert tribe that exoticizes his subjects by using language like "ancient" "mystical" "natives". His use of language is definitely presenting his personae (something Zinsser encourages every writer to do), unfortunately his personae is a bourgeois anglophile. Though he is of German descent, "The Sound of Your Voice" is the clearest example of his disdain for "the other" as he praises English words and language used based on the King James Bible, Elizabethan period, and expresses disdain for verbs of Latin origin. Like I said, this book MAY have a few valuable suggestions, but there was nothing in it that I had not heard before and thus could probably find somewhere else where I would not have to endure Zinsser's sexist and eurocentric "humor".

  6. 4 out of 5

    Thomas

    A straightforward guide to writing solid nonfiction. William Zinsser offers sound advice, including how to eliminate clutter and ways to target your audience. He spans several genres within nonfiction, ranging from sports writing to travel articles to memoir. He incorporates several example passages from his favorite writers and from his own work. On Writing Well provided tangible, quality writing tips. It did not excite me, though. Zinsser has a somewhat eurocentric perspective and his writing s A straightforward guide to writing solid nonfiction. William Zinsser offers sound advice, including how to eliminate clutter and ways to target your audience. He spans several genres within nonfiction, ranging from sports writing to travel articles to memoir. He incorporates several example passages from his favorite writers and from his own work. On Writing Well provided tangible, quality writing tips. It did not excite me, though. Zinsser has a somewhat eurocentric perspective and his writing selections often come from white men. His tone itself bored me as well - it did not irritate me, it just failed to provoke any emotion. Still, I give this book four stars based on its content, even if its voice did not stand out. Overall, recommended to those searching for a pragmatic, more technical book about writing nonfiction.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Katelyn Beaty

    I always thought of the ability to write well as a gift more than a skill--kind of like hand-eye coordination, or rhythm. You either have it or you don't. It's not until I began working in the editorial world that I realized the writing which seems effortless is that which requires the most effort. Part of my training at this job required reading a quintessential work on nonfiction writing, William Zinsser's "On Writing Well" (30th Anniversary edition). I was warned that it's a slow burn--perhap I always thought of the ability to write well as a gift more than a skill--kind of like hand-eye coordination, or rhythm. You either have it or you don't. It's not until I began working in the editorial world that I realized the writing which seems effortless is that which requires the most effort. Part of my training at this job required reading a quintessential work on nonfiction writing, William Zinsser's "On Writing Well" (30th Anniversary edition). I was warned that it's a slow burn--perhaps the opposite of the other book I've read on the writing process, Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird." Zinsser's isn't littered with quirky anecdotes about his son's parasailing adventures or Buddhist friends or dreadlocks (only said with fondness, Annie). What Zinsser's book offered instead was practical and precise guidance on how to make the English language sing in your nonfiction writing. Zinsser concentrates equally on the importance of technical mastery and original, honest ideas. On one hand, one must be able to convey information to his or her succinctly and clearly. This requires a breadth of knowledge on the ins-and-outs of English prose; grammar nerdiness doesn't hurt. (If you find yourself elated when you find someone else who uses the subjunctive tense, this book is for you.) Zinsser covers the variety of writing styles featured in most newspapers (i.e. sports writing vs. travel writing, common interest vs. international stories, etc.). But he also lays out suggestions on how to start the writing process as a writer-to-be. I especially enjoyed the section on how to make your personal story compelling as a memoir. I know everyone walks away from this book aspiring to become the next Tolstoy, but is this really such a silly aspiration?

  8. 5 out of 5

    Amir Tesla

    A good book on writing non-fiction.

  9. 4 out of 5

    John

    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 tru 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.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Marc *Dark Reader of the Woods*

    I don't understand. This book is just the letters W—E—L—L written over and over again, for three hundred pages. . . . . . . . . No? How about this then: It's not well known that the author was taken aback by several critical reviews of this book. He insisted that these were not factually accurate, particularly those written by female reviewers. He responded by publishing a sequel titled, "On Writing Actually".

  11. 5 out of 5

    Steven

    One of the oldest ways to master a craft is through imitation and writing well is no different. Zinsser's book stands alongside Strunk & White's "Elements of Style" as one of the best guides on how to write clearly and effectively. The book's tone and style is much like a series of lectures from a professor who projects a sense of knowledge, warmth, and passion. Zinsser illustrates many of his points through the use of personal anecdotes and examples culled from writers of different disciplines. One of the oldest ways to master a craft is through imitation and writing well is no different. Zinsser's book stands alongside Strunk & White's "Elements of Style" as one of the best guides on how to write clearly and effectively. The book's tone and style is much like a series of lectures from a professor who projects a sense of knowledge, warmth, and passion. Zinsser illustrates many of his points through the use of personal anecdotes and examples culled from writers of different disciplines. They all point to two of writing's main sources of inspiration: people and places. Without these as a starting point, there is no entry point for the reader or for the writer. What separates and ultimately elevates Zinsser's book from Strunk & White is that Zinsser delves into the mentality of the writer, how she or he can approach writing and make the crucial decisions, and how to apply such principles as espoused by Strunk & White. I found that Zinsser's most important point was that good writing comes from a desire to write well, repeated effort, and judicious editing.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Joy D

    On Writing Well provides advice on how to write non-fiction. It is logically organized into four sections: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitude. The first section covers the basics. It conveys tips on writing in a straight-forward uncluttered manner with emphasis on action verbs. The second focuses on organization, presentation, and structure. The third shows examples of different types of writing, such as travel, memoir, science, business, sports, arts, and humor. The last section explores On Writing Well provides advice on how to write non-fiction. It is logically organized into four sections: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitude. The first section covers the basics. It conveys tips on writing in a straight-forward uncluttered manner with emphasis on action verbs. The second focuses on organization, presentation, and structure. The third shows examples of different types of writing, such as travel, memoir, science, business, sports, arts, and humor. The last section explores finding your own voice. It covers intangibles such as setting high standards, gaining confidence, and taking risks. This book is geared toward writing in English, but the concepts can be applied to other languages. Zinsser’s background, as a published author and former professor at Yale and Columbia, gives him credibility. The book is easy to read and understand. I particularly liked Zinsser’s analysis of writing samples, with suggestions for improvement. I smiled often at his use of humor: “Leave ‘myriad’ and their ilk to the poets. Leave ‘ilk’ to anyone who will take it away.” Originally published in 1976, I read the 30th anniversary edition, which has been updated but still feels dated – such as references to printouts and word processors. The author holds strong opinions and states them forcefully. He also tends to repeat himself. Nevertheless, I discovered sound tools and techniques to incorporate into my writing. Life-long learners will value the content.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Michael Galdamez

    Writing a sufficiently well-written review for a well-written book about how to write well is a lot to write well. So I'll write it well later.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Rosie Nguyễn

    A must read for those whose works relate to writing: students, teachers, businessmen, reporters, and of course, writers. Very useful tips along with very witty style. And above all, a man with high passion, virtue and responsibility with his job.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Neil R. Coulter

    Returning to On Writing Well some years after the last read-through is like reconnecting with an old friend. This was one of the first books I read when I really started to learn how to write (which, I might mention, happened after I‘d completed a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, and a PhD; thank you, American higher education). William Zinsser’s clarity and winsomeness fueled my love of writing and editing, and looking at the book now, I’m almost startled to recognize how much of my edi Returning to On Writing Well some years after the last read-through is like reconnecting with an old friend. This was one of the first books I read when I really started to learn how to write (which, I might mention, happened after I‘d completed a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, and a PhD; thank you, American higher education). William Zinsser’s clarity and winsomeness fueled my love of writing and editing, and looking at the book now, I’m almost startled to recognize how much of my editing personality came from Zinsser. I’ve worked with hundreds of clients on editing and proofreading, and I know that Zinsser’s wise guidance has benefited all of them. What I still love about On Writing Well is the simple, direct, encouraging style Zinsser uses. He makes the writing process seem so natural and clear. He demystifies common ideas about the work and craft, making it seem like something I really can do. I also appreciate the range of his perspective. He finds something to love in all kinds of writing—memoir, humor, travel, sports, and others. That breadth pushes me to find the good in a wide array of genres, too. I wish Zinsser would have talked more about academic writing, but that wasn’t his forte; and much of what he does say would improve writing in the humanities. Zinsser completed the final revision of On Writing Well in 2006, and nine years later he died. As much as I continue to love the book and Zinsser’s influence, I’m also sad in this read-through to see that the book’s other-era-ness is now hindering its potential to speak to writers today. There are some cringing moments when Zinsser writes about other cultures and subcultures, other places in the world, and women. And though Zinsser writes carefully about humor, his own sense of humor now feels dated and corny. (It’s hard to imagine that his Haircurl satire was ever funny.) Some of his guidance is so outdated that it’s now wrong—such as his advice about interviewing, in chapter 12. What I’d like is a writer’s guide that is still much closer to On Writing Well than to A World Without “Whom,” but that takes into account the speed of language change, the influence of internet communication, and pop culture references and a sense of humor that fit into today’s world. Zinsser took a particular approach to writing—an approach that looks back especially to E. B. White, one of Zinsser’s heroes—to its limit; now I want to read someone with that same wisdom but situated in this moment. I’ll be reading On Writing Well with students next semester, and I’m very curious to see how they respond to it. I hope they’ll be able to take advantage of all the good it offers, without being distracted by its shortcomings; and I hope Zinsser will be a friend to them in their writing journeys.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Miranda Cary

    In my opinion this book, compared to Elements of Style, is like being transported to an entirely different world in itself. No longer is some taut professor (sorry, Mr. White and Mr. Strunk! I still love you.) slapping a ruler against the board, directing you what verbs to use and which tenses sound best, what constitutes as good language compared to language that is gaudy and overrated, only putting the ruler down by the last few minutes of class to speak calmly with you; if White and Strunk tr In my opinion this book, compared to Elements of Style, is like being transported to an entirely different world in itself. No longer is some taut professor (sorry, Mr. White and Mr. Strunk! I still love you.) slapping a ruler against the board, directing you what verbs to use and which tenses sound best, what constitutes as good language compared to language that is gaudy and overrated, only putting the ruler down by the last few minutes of class to speak calmly with you; if White and Strunk truly taught that way, then Zinsser's style is simple. Take away the ruler, throw out the board, pull up a chair and get to the point--staying true to yourself and your craft. Not that Strunk and White weren't already amazing teachers--Elements of Style is a brilliant guide. I just feel more relaxed with Zinsser, as if he's some kindly old professor who's taught the same lesson over and over again and refuses to do it in the same drab style. He doesn't just teach you the steps; Zinsser lets you explore further, allowing yourself to question what you're about to write and how to approach it, whatever the genre may be for your article. Not a word is out of place, and he keeps the definitions and directions fresh in our minds with examples from all sorts of sources. I may not write a lot of nonfiction in my life, but On Writing Well isn't just for people with a desire to write. It's for anyone who NEEDS to write, and that's practically every person in this whole country, let it be businessman or teacher or whatever other profession that someone can have. There are so many quotes from this book that I can rattle on about, but I'll leave you all with the most recent quote that popped into my mind: "But finally the purposes that writers serve must be their own. What you write is yours and nobody else's. Take your talent as far as you can and guard it with your life. Only you know how far that is; no editor knows. Writing well means believing in your writing and believing in yourself, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel. You will write only as you make yourself write."

  17. 4 out of 5

    ♥ 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 o 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.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Mehrsa

    Really great practical advice on writing--be clear, be truthful, and don't get cocky. I should re-read this one again and again

  19. 5 out of 5

    Daniel

    Why Zinsser Still Matters Second 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 lookin Why Zinsser Still Matters Second 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 character's 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".

  20. 4 out of 5

    Mark Jr.

    Aside from his advice about usage—which made me deeply grateful for the more rigorously empirical and linguistically accurate advice of Steven Pinker’s *Style*—this book was a delight. The advice was sage, drawing as it did from a multi-decade depth and breadth of experience both in writing and in teaching writing. The excerpts singled out for praise and analysis were excellent, paragons of prose. I will return to this book. It confirmed some of my most deeply held views about writing (especiall Aside from his advice about usage—which made me deeply grateful for the more rigorously empirical and linguistically accurate advice of Steven Pinker’s *Style*—this book was a delight. The advice was sage, drawing as it did from a multi-decade depth and breadth of experience both in writing and in teaching writing. The excerpts singled out for praise and analysis were excellent, paragons of prose. I will return to this book. It confirmed some of my most deeply held views about writing (especially that it should be “truth through personality”) and challenged me to rethink others (especially my strategy for personal illustrations). Every writer at Faithlife should read this book (and Pinker’s). A tiny bit of the advice (and most of Zinsser's own excerpts, but not his expository prose) was dated. But this deserves to be called a classic.

  21. 5 out of 5

    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.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Dave I

    Classic seminal work on editing, phrasing and delivering a message.

  23. 4 out of 5

    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 terrib 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.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Whitney

    ~3.5~ I am pretty impressed with myself that I finished this book in a week...But it was interesting and VERY helpful for writing future papers and even in my writing outside of school. I did find myself skipping over some paragraphs sometimes and just scanning (that is why I rated it lower). But overall, it was a good read. I think that I would've enjoyed it more if I didn't have to read it for school...but aren't we all like that?

  25. 5 out of 5

    Leo Walsh

    What can I say about Zinsser that hasn't already been said? I read my first version of this book in the eighties as a side-text for a university comp class. And this is the third edition I've read. The core material stays the same, but this edition includes writing clear, concise prose for electronic media and meetings in addition to the paper-writing skills I focused on at 18. Five stars. A classic. Plus.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Mark Seemann

    Write for you because otherwise what you write becomes impersonal. Write for the reader because otherwise what you write becomes parochial. I'm already a writer, so I didn't buy this book to learn how to write. I bought it to become a better writer. Maybe it will make me a better writer. I admit that I'm inspired to write about topics that I previously have not touched. How can I fault a book that inspires me? On the other hand, I had expected more concrete advice on how to structure my writing; ho Write for you because otherwise what you write becomes impersonal. Write for the reader because otherwise what you write becomes parochial. I'm already a writer, so I didn't buy this book to learn how to write. I bought it to become a better writer. Maybe it will make me a better writer. I admit that I'm inspired to write about topics that I previously have not touched. How can I fault a book that inspires me? On the other hand, I had expected more concrete advice on how to structure my writing; how to make my point with clarity; how to advance an argument or lead the reader to a particular insight. There's not much of that here, but again I can't blame a book for not achieving a goal it never professes to have. Distilled to essence, writing well is to write deliberately. Write, rewrite, prune, and rearrange; never lose sight of the reader. Use active verbs and nouns. Prefer short, precise, native words over pompous Latin or Greek words. The book seems to be a collection of essays on non-fiction writing. They're easy to read, and contain much reasonable advice, but I don't feel that I learned much that I didn't already know.

  27. 5 out of 5

    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. On 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.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Taka

    Read the first two parts-- Witty, concise, and informative, the first two parts on "Principles" and "Methods" are brilliant. These parts, however, constitute 30% of the book. The rest of the book - that is, 70% - is uneven and can be skipped without missing out on anything important. The only chapters I found worth reading are those on "Science and Technology," "Business Writing," and "Writing About Arts," all of which are in Part III. Other than these, none of the chapters say anything that hasn' Read the first two parts-- Witty, concise, and informative, the first two parts on "Principles" and "Methods" are brilliant. These parts, however, constitute 30% of the book. The rest of the book - that is, 70% - is uneven and can be skipped without missing out on anything important. The only chapters I found worth reading are those on "Science and Technology," "Business Writing," and "Writing About Arts," all of which are in Part III. Other than these, none of the chapters say anything that hasn't been said already and can be skimmed or skipped, according to your interest in the particular subject of each chapter. One nugget of advice I found extremely helpful and would like to share is this: "Forget the competition and go at your own pace. your only contest is with yourself." I couldn't have said better. Writers are egomaniacs who care too much about what other people think of their writing. My advice: read the first two parts and only read what interests you after that.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Nente

    The first two parts are more useful than the rest, and there is much more to agree with in this book than in Elements of Style, which is often dogmatic about usage and so gets dated. However, Zinsser's viewpoint is very noticeably that of an insular American. Not being American, I find this amusing in several ways.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Andreea Lucau

    I got some very useful tips from this book for improving my writing skills. I enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second - it contained more advice that I could put into practice. The second half made me a harsher critic of all nonfictional pieces that I'll read.

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