5 FREE THE WRITER takeaways from William Zinsser's On Writing Well

5 FREE THE WRITER takeaways from William Zinsser's On Writing Well

In 2006, renowned writer, editor, literary critic, and teacher William Zinsser compiled his life experience and teachings into a book called On Writing Well: The Class Guide to Writing Nonfiction. Though his specialty is nonfiction, the writing principles he shares can help any writer sharpen their craft and renew their enthusiasm.

Zinsser encourages us to put ourselves in our writing instead of hiding behind our words. He teaches us to write better, decrease the clutter, find our unique voice, and set ourselves apart in a highly competitive field. No matter what type of writer you are, you’ll find Zinsser’s advice valuable.

So let’s dive into the interview, shall we?

NOTE: This book is summarized in a Q&A format; all answers are directly from William Zinsser (not lil’ ol’ me).

Is there a “right” way to write?

There isn’t any “right” way to do such personal work. There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of methods, and any method that helps you to say what you want to say is the right method for you.

What defines good writing?

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’s at the heart of good writing. Out of it come two of the most important qualities: humanity and warmth. Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and 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.

The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon. Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.

How can we free our writing from clutter?

The answer is to clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English. 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’s usually because the writer hasn’t been careful enough. Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Then they must look at what they have written and ask: have I said it?

Good writing doesn’t come naturally, though most people seem to think it does. Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is not accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice. Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.

I agree that writers should eliminate clutter. But is there a point in which stripping every sentence to its barest bone can eliminate the writer’s personality?

You have to strip your writing down before you can build it back up. Extending the metaphor of carpentry, it’s first necessary to be able to saw wood neatly and to drive nails. Later you can bevel the edges or add elegant finials, if that’s your taste. But you can never forget that you are practicing a craft that’s based on certain principles. If the nails are weak, your house will collapse. If your verbs are weak and your syntax is rickety, your sentences will fall apart. First, then, learn to hammer the nails, and if what you build is sturdy and serviceable, take satisfaction in its plain strength.

But you will be impatient to find a “style”—to embellish the plain words so that readers will recognize you as someone special. When you set out deliberately to garnish your prose, you lose whatever it is that makes you unique.

Writing is an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper, and it will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity. Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.

Should writers have an audience in mind?

You are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such 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. Editors and readers don’t know what they want to read until they read it. Besides, they’re always looking for something new. You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for.

To what extent should writers apply reader feedback?

In terms of craft, there’s no excuse for losing readers through sloppy workmanship. If they doze off because you have been careless about a technical detail, the fault is yours. But on the larger issue of whether the reader likes you, or likes what you are saying or how you are saying it, don’t give him a moment’s worry. You are who you are, he is who he is, and either you get along or you won’t.

So what is the balance between keeping readers and not caring about what they think?

I assure you that they are separate processes. First, work hard to master the tools. Simplify, prune and strive for order. Think of this as a mechanical act, and soon your sentences will become cleaner. Your sentences will be grounded in solid principles, and your chances of losing the readers will be smaller.

Think of the other as a creative act: the expressing of who you are. Relax and say what you want to say. And since style is who you are, you only need to be true to yourself to find it gradually emerging from under the accumulated clutter and debris, growing more distinctive every day. Just as it takes time to find yourself as a person, it takes time to find yourself as a stylist. But whatever your age, be yourself when you write. Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. It takes courage to be such a writer, but it is out of such courage that revered and influential [writers] are born.

How can writers learn to use words wisely?

You’ll never make your mark as a writer unless you develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive. Take the time to root around and find the ones you want. Make a habit of reading what is being written today and what was written by early masters. Writing is learned by imitation. If anyone asked me how I learned to write, I’d say I learned by reading the men and women who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to to do and trying to figure out how they did it.

Get in the habit of using dictionaries. If you have any doubt of what a word means, look it up. The Thesaurus is to the writer what a rhyming dictionary is to the songwriter—a reminder of all the choices—and you should use it with gratitude. Also bear in mind, when you’re choosing words and stringing them together, how they sound. Good writers of prose must be part poet, always listening to what they write.

How can writers learn to write better?

You learn to write by writing. The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis. All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem. It may be a problem of where to obtain the facts or how to organize the material. It may be a problem of approach or attitude, tone or style. Sometimes you will despair of finding the right solution—or any solution. Whatever it is, it has to be confronted and solved.

You mention in your book that “unity is the anchor of good writing.” How can writers cultivate more unity in their work?

First, get your units straight. Unity not only keeps the reader from straggling off in all directions; it satisfies your readers’ subconscious need for order and reassures them that all is well at the helm. Therefore choose from among the many variables and stick to your choice. Ask yourself some basic questions before you start:

  • In what capacity am I going to address the reader? (reporter, provider of information, average man or woman)

  • What pronoun and tense am I going to use?

  • What style? (Impersonal reportorial, personal but formal, personal and casual)

  • What attitude am I going to take toward the material? (involved, detached, judgmental, ironic, amused)

  • How much do I want to cover?

  • What one point do I want to make?

The last two questions are especially important. Every writing project must be reduced before you start to write. Therefore think small. Decide what corner of your subject you’re going to bite off, and be content to cover it well and stop. This is also a matter of energy and morale. An unwieldy writing task is a drain on your enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is the force that keeps you going and keeps the reader in your rip. When your zest begins to ebb, the reader is the first person to know it.

Every successful piece should leave the reader with one provocative though that he or she didn’t have before. Not two thoughts, or five—just one. So decide what single point you want to leave in the reader’s mind. It will not only give you a better idea of what route you should follow and what destination you hope to reach; it will affect your decision about tone and attitude. Once you have your unities decided, there’s no material you can’t work into your frame.

What do you do if the “units” you chose don’t work with the story you are writing?

Now it often happens that you’ll make these prior decisions and then discover that they weren’t the right ones. The material begins to lead you in an unexpected direction, where you are more comfortable writing in a different tone. That’s normal—the act of writing generates some cluster of thoughts or memories that you didn’t anticipate. Don’t fight such a current if it feels right. Trust your material if it’s taking you into terrain you didn’t intend to enter but where the vibrations are good. Adjust your style accordingly and proceed to whatever destination you reach. Don’t become the prisoner of a preconceived plan. Writing is no respecter of blueprints.

What makes a great “lead” or hook?

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. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the “lead.”

Readers want to know—very soon—what’s in it for them. Therefore your lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading. It 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 and tugs at his sleeve.

Next coax the reader a little more; keep him inquisitive. Continue to build. Every paragraph should amplify the one that preceded it. Give more thought to adding solid detail and less to entertaining the reader. But take special care with the last sentence of each paragraph—it’s the crucial springboard to the next paragraph. Try to give that sentence an extra twist of humor or surprise. Make the reader smile and you’ve got him for at least one more paragraph.

How can writers know when to end a story?

Often the story will tell you where it wants to stop. When you get such a message from your material--when your story tells you it’s over, regardless of what subsequently happened--look for the door. The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right. It’s like the curtain line in a theatrical comedy. We are startled to find the scene over, and then delighted by the aptness of how it ended. What delights us is the playwright’s perfect control.

Something I often do in my writing is to bring the story full circle—to strike at the end an echo of a note that was sounded at the beginning. It gratifies my sense of symmetry, and it also pleases the reader, completing with its resonance the journey we set out on together. But what usually works best is surprise. If something surprises you it will also surprise—and delight—the people you are writing for, especially as you conclude your story and send them on their way.

What should writers focus on when revising a first draft?

Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost. That idea is hard to accept. We all have an emotional equity in our first draft. You won’t write well until you understand that writing is an evolving process, not a finished product. Nobody expects you to get it right the first time, or even the second time. Most rewriting consists of reshaping and tightening and refining the raw material you wrote on your first try. Much of it consists of making sure you’ve given the reader a narrative flow he can follow with no trouble from beginning to end. Keep putting yourself in the reader’s place. Learn to enjoy this tidying process. I don’t like to write; I like to have written. But I love to rewrite. I especially like to cut. With every small refinement I feel that I’m coming nearer to where I would like to arrive, and when I finally get there I know it was the rewriting, not the writing, that won the game.

Here are some principles to keep in mind as you rewrite:

  • Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum. Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb.

  • Most adverbs are unnecessary. You will clutter your sentence and annoy the reader if you choose a verb that has a specific meaning and 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. Adjectives [should] do a job that the noun alone wouldn’t be doing.

  • There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.

  • The dash will get you out of many tight corners. An explanatory detail that might otherwise have required a separate sentence is neatly dispatched along the way.

  • Always use “that” instead of which unless it makes your meaning ambiguous.

  • Don’t overstate. Life has more than enough truly horrible funny situations. Let the humor sneak up so we hardly hear it coming.

  • Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it.

  • Keep your paragraphs short. Writing is visual—it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain. Short paragraphs put air around that you write and make it look inviting, whereas a long chuck of type can discourage a reader from even starting to read.

  • Much of the trouble that writers get into comes from trying to make one sentence do too much work. Never be afraid to break a long sentence into two short ones, or even three.  

What advice would you give writers who feel inadequate?

Writing is not a contest. Every writer is starting from a different point and is bound for a different destination. Yet many writers are paralyzed by the thought that they are competing with everybody else who is trying to write and presumably doing it better. Forget the competition and go at your own pace. Your only contest is with yourself.

What advice would you give writers who struggle to come up with ideas?

Your subconscious mind does more writing than you think. Frequently a solution will occur to you the next morning when you plunge back in. While you slept, your writer’s mind didn’t. A writer is always working. Stay alert to the currents around you. Much of what you see and hear will come back, just when your conscious mind, laboring to write, needs it.

There’s no subject you don’t have permission to write about. No area of life is stupid to someone who takes it seriously. If you follow your affection, you will write well and will engage your readers. No subject is too specialized or too quirky if you make an honest connection with it when you write about it.

How can writers infuse their writing with a sense of place?

Every human event happens somewhere, and the reader wants to know what that somewhere was like. In a few cases you’ll need only a paragraph or two to sketch the setting of an event. But more often you’ll need to evoke the mood of a whole neighborhood or town to give texture to the story you’re telling. And in certain cases, descriptive detail will be the main substance.

Strive for fresh words and images. As for substance, be intensely selective. Eliminate every fact that is a known attribute: don’t tell us that the sea had waves and the sand was white. Find details that are significant. Your main task is to find the central idea of the place you’re dealing with. Whether the locale you write about is urban or rural, east or west every place has a look, a population and a set of cultural assumptions unlike any other place. Isolate the qualities that make it distinctive. Usually this will be some combination of the place and the people who inhabit it. What brings a place alive is human activity: people doing the things that give a locale its character. Enter into the intention of each place. Find out what it is trying to be, not what you might have expected or wanted it to be.

How can writers pull off humor in their books?

Few writers realize that humor is often their best tool--and sometimes their only tool--for making an important point. If this strikes you as a paradox, you’re not alone. Humor is an attempt to say important things in a special way that regular writers aren’t getting said in a regular way--or if they are, it’s so regular that nobody is reading it. The writer must find some comic device--satire, parody, irony, lampoon, nonsense--that he can use to disguise his serious point. The heightening of some crazy truth--to a level where it will be seen as crazy--is the essence of what serious humorists are trying to do.

Most humor, however freakish it may seem, is based on fundamental truths and helps us to look at problems of the heart, the home, the family, the job and all the other frustrations of just getting from morning to night. I suggest several principles for the writer of humor.

  • Control is vital to humor. Don’t make the same kind of joke two or three times--readers will enjoy themselves more if you make it only once. Trust the sophistication of readers who do know what you’re doing, and don’t worry about the rest.

  • Master the craft of writing good “straight” English; humorists are, first of all, superb writers.

  • Don’t search for the outlandish and scorn what seems too ordinary; you will touch more chords by finding what’s funny in what you know to be true.

  • Don’t strain for laughs; humor is built on surprise, and you can surprise the reader only so often.

  • Enjoyment is what all humorists must convey--the idea that they are having a terrific time.

  • One of the oldest strains in humor writing is the eternal credulity of the narrator. Used in moderation, making yourself gullible--or downright stupid--gives the reader the enormous pleasure of feeling superior.

  • Sermons are the death of humor.

How can writers discover their voice?

My commodity as a writer, whatever I’m writing about, is me. And your commodity is you. Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page, a voice that’s enjoyable not only in its musical line but in its avoidance of sounds that would cheapen its tone. Write with respect for the English language at its best--and for readers at their best. Readers will stop reading you if they think you are talking down to them. Nobody wants to be patronized.

Never hesitate to imitate another writer. Imitation is a part of the creative process for anyone learning an art or a craft. Find the best writers in the fields that interest you and reader their work aloud. Get their voice and their taste into your ear--their attitude toward language. Don’t worry that by imitating them you’ll lose your own voice and your own identity. Soon enough you will shed those skins and become who you are supposed to become.

A writer with an ear for language will reach for fresh imagery and avoid phrases that are trite. Writing that will endure tends to consist of words that are short and strong. Eloquence moves us with what it leaves unsaid, touching off echoes in what we already know from our reading, our religion and our heritage. It invites us to bring some part of ourselves to the transaction.

How can writers overcome the fears that keep them from writing well or writing at all?

Fear of writing is planted in most Americans at an early age, usually at school, and it never entirely goes away. The blank piece of paper or the blank computer screen, waiting to be filled with our wonderful words, can freeze us into not writing any words at all, or writing words that are less than wonderful. I’m often dismayed by the sludge I see appearing on my screen if I approach writing as a task--the day’s work--and not with some enjoyment. My only consolation is that I’ll get another shot at those dismal sentences tomorrow and the next day and the day after. With each rewrite I try to force my personality onto the material.

A fixation on the finished article causes writers a lot of trouble, deflecting them from all the earlier decisions that have to be made to determine its shape and voice and content. It’s a very American kind of trouble. We are a culture that worships the winning result. For writers the winning grade is the check. If the process is sound, the product will take care of itself, and sales are likely to follow.

Living is the trick. Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That’s almost the whole point of becoming a writer. I’ve used writing to give myself an interesting life and a continuing education. If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write.

That doesn’t mean you won’t be nervous when you go forth into unfamiliar terrain. You’ll be thrown again and again into specialized worlds, and you’ll worry that you’re not qualified to bring the story back. Remember this when you enter new territory and need a shot of confidence. Your best credential is yourself. Push the boundaries of your subject and see where it takes you. Bring some part of your own life to it; it’s not your version of the story until you write it.

How can writers conduct better interviews as background research for their books?

The basic tools for an interview are paper and some well-sharpened pencils. But keep your notebook out of sight until you need it. There’s nothing less likely to relax a person than the arrival of a stranger with a stenographer’s pad. Take a while just to chat, gauging what sort of person you’re dealing with, getting him or her to trust you. Never go into an interview without doing whatever homework you can. Make a list of likely questions that will elicit answers about what is most interesting or vivid in their hearts. Nothing so animates writing as someone telling what he thinks or what he does—in his own words.

Many authors also write book reviews or literary criticism. Any advice for them?

I suggest several conditions that apply to both good reviewing and good criticism.

  • Critics should like--or, better still, love--the medium they are reviewing.

  • Don’t give away too much of the plot. Tell readers just enough to let them decide whether it’s the kind of story they tend to enjoy, but not so much that you’ll kill their enjoyment. One sentence will often do the trick. Don’t spoil their pleasure by revealing every twist of the narrative, especially the funny part.

  • Use specific detail. This avoids dealing in generalities, which, being generalities, mean nothing. Cite a few examples and let your readers weight them on their own fascination scale. In book reviewing this means allowing the author’s words to do their own documentation. Don’t say that Tom Wolfe’s style is gaudy and unusual. Quote a few of his gaudy and unusual sentences and let the reader see how quirky they are.

  • A final caution is to avoid the ecstatic adjectives that occupy such disproportionate space in every critic’s quiver--words like “enthralling” and “luminous.” Good criticism needs a lean and vivid style to express what you observed and what you think.

How can writers write about science and technology in an engaging way?

Imagine science writing as an upside-down pyramid. Start at the bottom with the one fact a reader must know before he can learn any more. The second sentence broadens what was stated first, making the pyramid wider, and the third sentence broadens the second, so that you can gradually move beyond fact into significance and speculation—how a new discovery alters what was known, what new avenues of research it might open, where the research might be applied. There’s no limit to how wide the pyramid can become, but your readers will understand the brand implications only if they start with one narrow fact.

Always start with too much material. Then give your reader just enough. You can take much of the mystery out of science writing by helping the reader to identify with the scientific work being done. Again, this means looking for the human element. Connect the reader to some mechanism that also touches his life. Reduce the abstract principle to an image they can visualize. This isn’t a story about “science”; it’s a story about people doing science.

What advice do you have for those writing a memoir?

Think small. Don’t rummage around in your past to find episodes that you think are “important” enough to be worthy of including in your memoir. Look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you still remember them it’s because they contain a universal truth that your readers will recognize in their own life.

Your biggest stories will often have less to do with their subject than with their significance--not what you did in a certain situation, but how that situation affected you and shaped the person you became.

How can writers set themselves apart?

Ninety percent of the answer lies in the hard work of mastering the tools discussed in this book. Add a few points for such natural gifts as a good musical ear, a sense of rhythm and a feeling for words. But 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 whose sights may be different from yours, whose standards not as high. Too many writers are browbeaten into settling for less than their best.

When I tell aspiring writers that they should think of themselves as part entertainer, they don’t like to hear it. But to succeed you must make your piece jump out by being more diverting than everyone else’s piece. You must find some way to elevate your act of writing into an entertainment. Usually this means giving the reader an enjoyable surprise. Any number of devices will do the job: humor, anecdote, paradox, an unexpected quotation, a powerful fact, an outlandish detail, a circuitous approach, an elegant arrangement of words. These seeming amusements in fact become your “style.” When we say we like the style of certain writers, what we mean is that we like their personality as they express it on paper. Given a choice between two traveling companions--we usually choose the one who we think will make an effort to brighten the trip.

My 5 FREE THE WRITER takeaways are:

  1. You are writing for yourself. If you find what you write enjoyable, your readers will too.

  2. The heart of good writing is the writer’s personality. Get rid of the clutter so you can let it shine.

  3. A writer is also an entertainer. Surprise your readers.

  4. Although you want to avoid losing your reader with sloppy workmanship, you don’t need to worry about whether the reader likes you, what you say, or how you say it. You are who you are. and he is who he is.

  5. Learn to enjoy the revision process knowing that every cut gets you nearer to the result you desire.

What did you take away from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well? What will you apply to your writing this week? Feel free to share in the comments below.

Now go free that writer,


A writer like you: Nicole Love

A writer like you: Nicole Love

A writer like you: Marcus Jones

A writer like you: Marcus Jones