On Writing Well
On Writing Well by William Zinsser is one of the best books I’ve read. I revisit it once every couple years, and I’m able to get new perspectives and inspirations every time. At its core, this book talks about sensitivity: good writers are observant of their surroundings. Good writers choose words carefully. Good writers keep the content condensed, relevant and genuine.
I’ve summarized the first two parts of the book below. The later parts are more anecdotical and I don’t find them as useful.
Part I Principles
There isn’t a right way to do such personal work that is writing. But all of them are valuable and all of them are tense.
Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is. This is the personal transaction that is at the heart of good nonfiction writing. Humanity and warmth.
Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are in a society strangling in unnecessary words and meaningless jargon.
The secret to good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Simplify, simplify. Clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing.
Thoreau’s Walden: 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, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
The reader is someone with an attention span of about 30 seconds. It won’t do to say that the reader is too dumb or too lazy to keep pace with the train of thought. If the reader is lost, it is usually because the writer hasn’t been careful enough.
Writers therefore must constantly ask, what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they do not know. Have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time?
Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. If you find writing is hard, it is because it is hard.
Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds. The writer is always slightly behind. Clutter is the laborious phrase that has pushed out the short word that means the same thing. Clutter is the language used by corporations to hide their mistakes.
Is there any way to recognize clutter at a glance? Put brackets around every component in a piece of writing that wasn’t doing useful work: superfluous words.
Few people realize how badly they write. Nobody has shown them how much excess or murkiness has crept into their style and how it obstructs what they are trying to say.
You have to strip your writing down before you can build it back up.
You will be impatient to find a “style”, to embellish the plain words so that readers will recognize you as someone special. You will reach for gaudy similes and tinseled adjectives, as if “style” were something you could by at the style store and drape onto your words in bright decorator colors. There is no style store; style is organic to the person doing the writing.
This is the problem of writers who set out deliberately to garnish their prose. You lose whatever it is that makes you unique. A fundamental rule: be yourself.
No rule, however, is hard to follow. Writers must relax and have confidence. Telling a writer to relax, a writer will do anything to avoid the act of writing.
You are so busy thinking of your awesome responsibility to the finished article and you can’t even start.
Writers are obviously at their most natural when they write in first person. They think they must earn the rights to reveal their emotions or their thoughts. Or that’s egotistical, undignified. There’s only one you. Nobody else thinks or feels the exact same way.
There are vast regions of writing where “I” isn’t allowed. Newspapers, magazines, businesses, institutions, schools. If you aren’t allowed to use “I”, at least think “I” when you write, or write the first draft in “I” then edit it out. It will warm up your impersonal style.
“Who am I writing for”? You are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. Every reader is a different person. Don’t try to guess what sort of thing editors want to publish or what you think the country is in a mood to read.
You are who you are, the reader is who he is, and either you’ll get along or you won’t.
First, work hard to master the tools. Simply, prune and strive for order. Your sentences are grounded in solid principles, you chances of losing the reader will be smaller.
Then, think of the other as a creative act: the expressing of who you are. Relax and say what you want to say. Style is who you are.
Never say anything in writing you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation.
Death of originality in anybody’s style: journalese. The common currency of newspapers and magazines – a mixture of cheap words, made-up words and cliches that has become so pervasive that a writer can hardly help using them. It’s a quilt of instant words patched together out of other parts of the speech.
Examples: words include “greats”, “notables”, “emote”, “beef up”, “upcoming”; phrases include “shouldered his way”, “waging a lonely war”, “sending shock waves”, “New York’s finest”.
We know what to expect.No surprise awaits us in the form of an unusual word. We are in the hands of a hack and we know it. Don’t let yourself get into this position. The only way to avoid it is to care deeply about words.
Writing is learned by imitation. Make a habit of reading the early masters. Learn by reading men and women who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it.
Get in the habit of using dictionaries. Look up words. Master the small gradations between words that seem to be synonyms.
Readers read with their eyes. Bear in mind how they sound, when you are choosing words and stringing them together.
Good writers of prose must be part poet. Good writers choose one word over another because they were after a certain emotional weight. It’s the difference between “serene” and “tranquil” – one so soft, the other strangely disturbing because of the unusual “n” and “q”.
Remember that words are the only tools you have got. Learn to use them with originality and care. And also remember: somebody out there is listening.
Why is one word good and another word cheap? I can’t give you an answer because usage has no fixed boundaries. Language is a fabric that changes frequently. Which still leaves the question of who our tastemakers are.
In the end it comes down to what is “correct” usage. We recognized that correctness can even vary within a word. We rejected “too” as a synonym for “very”, but we approved it in sardonic or humorous use. They are signals to the reader that you are sensitive to the shadings of usage. “Too” when substituted for “very” is clutter. But it could add a tinge of sarcasm that otherwise wouldn’t be there.
Choose always the grammatical form unless it sounds affected. We should not be so hung up on correctness that we didn’t want the language to keep refreshing itself with phrases like “hung up”. But that didn’t mean we had to accept every atrocity that comes lumbering in.
What is good usage? Try to separate usage from jargon. “Prioritize” is jargon – a pompous new verb that sounds more important than “rank” – and “bottom line” is usage, a metaphor borrowed from the world of bookkeeping that conveys an image we can picture.
Good usage consists of using good words if they already exists to express myself clearly and simply to someone else.
Part II Methods
All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem. Sometimes you will despair of finding the right solution – or any solution. But when I finally do solve the problem it is because I’m like a surgeon removing his 500th appendix; I’ve been there before.
Unity is the anchor of good writing. Lack of unity are common in writers who haven’t learned control.
Unity of pronoun. Are you going to write in the first person as a participant, or in the third person as an observer?
Unity of tense. Past or present, do not switch back and forth. The purpose of tenses is to enable a writer to deal with time in its various gradations.
Unity of mood. Casual or formal. Don’t mix more than one.
As yourself some basic questions before you start writing: in what capacity am I going to address the reader? What pronoun and tense and style would it be? What attitude? How much do I want to cover? What one point do I want to make?
The last two questions are especially important. Most nonfiction writers have a definitive complex, they feel that they are under some obligation to make their article the last word. There is no last word. What you think is definitive today will turn by tonight, and writers doggedly pursue every last fact will find themselves pursuing the rainbow and never settling down to write.
Think small. Decide what corner of your subject you want to bite off, and be content to cover it well and stop. This is also about energy and morale. A significant writing task drains your enthusiasm.
Every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought and he or she didn’t have before. Not two, or five – just one thought. So decide what single point you want to leave in the reader’s mind.
The lead and the ending
The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit: the “lead”.
The length fo the lead depends on the audience you are writing for. The lead must cajole him with freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humor, or surprise, or with an unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question. Anything will do, as long as it nudges his curiosity.
Next the lead must do some real work, it must provide hard details that tell the reader why the piece was written and why he ought to read it. But don’t dwell on the reason. Coax the reader a little more; keep him inquisitive.
Take special care with the last sentence of each paragraph – it’s the crucial spring board to the next one.
Whenever you are lucky enough to get a quotation as funny as that one, find a way to use it.
You should always collect more material than you will use. Every article is strong in proportion to the surplus of details from which you can choose the few that will serve you the best.
Another moral is to look for your material everywhere, not just by reading the obvious sources and interviewing the obvious people. Billboards, labels, graffitis, fillers, menus, read everything, notice them. Our daily landscape is thick with absurd messages and portents. They not only have social significance, they are often just quirky enough to make a lead that’s different from everybody else’s.
Another approach is to just tell a story. Narrative is the oldest and most compelling method of holding someone’s attention. Everybody wants to be told a story. Always look for ways to convey your information in narrative form.
There are many ways to start an article. Now I want to tell you how to stop. Knowing when to end an article is far more important than most writers realize.
The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right. If you have presented all the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the nearest exist.
Surprise is the most refreshing element in nonfiction writing. If something surprises you it will also surprise and delight the readers, especially as you conclude your story and send them on their way.
Bits and pieces
Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum.
Use active verbs unless you can’t. Active verb provides clarity and vigor.
A style that consists of passive constructions will sap the reader’s energy. Nobody ever quite knows what is being perpetrated by whom and on whom.
Most adverbs are unnecessary. Don’t choose a verb that has a specific meaning then add an adverb that carries the same meaning.
Most adjectives are also unnecessary. Like adverbs they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don’t stop to think that the concept is already in the noun.
Pure out the small words that qualify how you feel / think / saw: a bit, a little, sort of, rather, quite, very, in a sense… Good writing is lean and confident.
Very is a useful word to emphasize but far more often it’s clutter.
The large point is one of authority. Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of the reader’s trust. Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.
Learn to alert the reader as soon as possible to any change in mood from the previous sentence: but, yet, however, instead, therefore…
There is no stronger word than “but’ at the start of a sentence. “However” is a weaker word that needs more careful placement. And don’t end sentences with “however” – by that time it has lost its howeverness.
That and which
Always use “that” unless it makes your meaning ambiguous., because “that” is what you would naturally say and therefore what you should write in most situations.
If your sentence needs a comma to achieve its precise meaning it probably needs “which”. “Which” serves a particular identifying function different from “that”.
Nouns that express a concept are commonly used in bad writing instead of verbs that tell what somebody did.
“The common reaction is laughter.” These sentences are eerie because they have no people in them. They also have no working verbs, only “is”. The reader can’t visualize anybody performing some activity. All the meaning lies in impersonal nouns that embody a vague concept.
“Most people just laugh.” Get people doing things. Use real people and real verbs.
“I seriously considered jumping out the window and killing myself”, writes the novice writer. These verbal high jinks can get just so high, and this writer is already well over the limit, before the reader feels an overpowering drowsiness. Don’t overstate. Just state.
The quickest fix
Surprisingly, often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it. Unfortunately, this solution is usually the last one that occurs to writers in a jam. It was trying to do an unnecessary job all along, that’s why it was giving you so much grief.
Keep your paragraphs short. Writing is visual. Short paragraphs put air around and make it look inviting.
Rewriting is the essence of writing well. You won’t write well until you understand that writing is an evolving process not a finished product.
Learn to enjoy this tidying process. I especially like to cut, to replace a humdrum word with one that has more precision or color.
Trust your material
The longer I work at the craft of writing, the more I realize that there’s nothing more interesting than the truth. What people do and say, continues to take my by surprise.
Capture and follow the genuine emotions. The reader plays a major role in the act of writing and must be given room to play it. Don’t annoy your readers by over-explaining. Try not to use the words like “surprisingly”, “predictably” and “of course”, which put a value on a fact before the reader encounters the fact.