On Writing Well · Book notes and summary

02 October 2021
On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

On Writing Well’s key message is to be economical in your writing. Find the most efficient way to express your ideas. Skip the fancy prose, because your readers will see through its pretentiousness, and instead focus on expressing your ideas clearly.

As a writer you might worry that by doing this, you will lose any chance standing out and having your own unique writing style. But like carpentry, you have to start from the foundations. And over time, your style will grow.

The book reiterates some of the advice laid out in the Elements of Style:

  • Use active verbs
  • Cut out most adverbs (e.g. “blared loudly” and “blared” mean the same thing)
  • Skip little qualifiers like “a little” or “sort of” as it reduces your authoritativeness

Some more general writing tips include:

  • Practice writing every day
  • Read your writing out loud to make sure it flows well
  • Write for yourself

"If you write for yourself, you'll reach the people want to write for."

There are chapters on writing about different genres of non-fiction writing. On travel writing: skip the cliches. Everyone already knows the Grand Canyon is majestic. What’s more interesting to your readers is your own experiences. The book covers other topics like business, sports and memoirs. For me, these were the most boring since I had no interest in these genres.

Something I have a bad habit of doing is using exclamation points, and Zinsser discourages use of this as well. Your readers are smart enough to pick up on when something is exciting or unusual, without you having to point it out to them with a “!”.

The only dated part of this book is the use of “he” as a default when talking about hypothetical situations. As part of the 30th Anniversary Edition, the author says he has replaced 300+ usages of “he”, since many women brought it up to him after they had read the book. However he didn’t replace them all, and disappointingly he says:

“But let’s face it: the English language is stuck with the generic masculine. To turn every ‘he’ into a ‘he or she’ . . . would clog the language.”

Otherwise, this book is still quite relevant today, and I would definitely recommend it for serious writers. For a hobby writer like me, I would have preferred it to be a little bit shorter.


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