Book Notes: On Writing Well

Book Author : William Zinsser

I’ve always enjoyed writing as a hobby. Recently I’ve taken more interest in writing as I began working with the Documentation team at WordPress.

This book is an excellent guide to understand the craft of good writing with practical tips and examples.

It gives a better insight into how you can approach the writing process, what tone and mood to consider before you start to write and if the material leads to unexpected directions, to let it follow the course and make style adjustments to the work as needed.

I learned that whether it be sports, science, business, corporate, it’s important to connect with the human in the reader and make your content relatable.

I also learned about punctuations and how and when to use them or not.

A few quotable quotes from the book that caught my attention:

  • The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.
  • Rewriting is the essence of writing.
  • Clear thinking becomes clear writing.
  • Examine every word you write.
  • Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Sell yourself.
  • When you write, ask- what do I want to convey. After you’ve written, check- am I conveying what I intended to.
  • Write in the first person.
  • Write for yourself.
  • Add specific details.
  • Write for an audience of one.
  • Consider the sound and rhythm of the words. Eg. serene and tranquil.
  • Read what you write aloud before publishing.
  • Alter the length of your sentences.
  • Unity is the anchor of good writing. Unity in pronouns. Unity in the tense.  Unity in the tone and mood.
  • Decide what single point you want to leave in the reader’s mind.
  • Look for ways to convey your information in narrative ways.
  • When you read add brackets to words that are superfluous.
  • Conduct interviews. Nonfiction writing becomes more alive in proportion to the number of quotes you can weave into them.
  • Always pepper in the human element to the story.
  • If you write for yourself, you’ll reach the people you want to write for.
  • Make sure every component in your memoir is doing useful work.
  • Writing is thinking on paper.
  • A simple style of writing is the result of hard work and hard thinking.
  • Be yourself when you write.
  • Humor is the best tool for making an important point. It is a secret weapon for nonfiction writers.
  • Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice the readers will recognize when they hear it on the page.
  • One way to generate confidence in writing is to write about subjects that interest you and you care about.  Write about people you respect. Writers have to jump-start themselves at the moment of performance no less than actors and musicians and painters.  Push the boundaries of the subject. Bring some part of your own life to it.

Some writing rules to keep in mind:

  • Avoid active verbs which need an appended preposition. Eg: the president stepped down. Instead say: The president resigned.
  • Use precise verbs.
  • Avoid adverbs.
  • Remove prepositions added to verbs, adverbs added to verbs.
  • Remove adjective that states the obvious. Eg: the radio blared loudly.
  • Avoid adjectives. If using make sure they convey important meaning.
  • Prune out the little qualifiers like a lot. Sort of. Rather. Quite. Very. Too. A little. Kind of. In a sense. Dozens more. It’s like you are hedging your prose with timidities. Be bold and confident.
  • Make short sentences.
  • Don’t use exclamation points unless you want to achieve a certain effect.
  • Dash is used when you want to amplify or justify the second part of the sentence what you said in the first part.
  • Colon is used when you want to have a brief pause and then begin an itemized list. Eg: the items she needed were on the list: potatoes, bananas, apples.
  • When you shift the mood of the sentences, use the mood changers – but, nevertheless, yet, however,  still, instead, meanwhile, therefore, now, later, today.
  • Use contractions to make the writing less stiff and robotic.
  • Use “That” unless it makes your writing ambiguous. Eg: the shoes that are in the closet.  The shoes, which are in the closet ( needs a comma before which ).
  • Instead of nouns that express a concept, use verbs that tell what somebody did. Eg. The common reaction is incredulous laughter. =>Most people laughed in disbelief.
  • Keep paragraphs short. Each paragraph should have its own integrity of content and structure.
  • On sexism– Don’t use constructions that can mean only men can be a certain role such as farmer, sailor, cop, firefighter. Instead of occupations having a male and feminine form make them gender-neutral. Eg: Instead of actors and actresses, say, performers.
  • Don’t use plural nouns because they weaken the writing because they are less specific. So writer or reader instead of writers or readers.
  • General nouns instead of specific nouns. Eg: Families instead of wives and children.

On writing:

  • The most important sentence in an article is the first sentence.
  • The last sentence of each paragraph is the springboard to the next paragraph
  • The lead grabs the reader with a provocative idea. Continue with each para to hold the reader.
  • As you write keep asking the question – what do my readers want to know next. And write para after para based on that. Let the paragraphs flow from one to the next so the readers won’t skim the story.  Remember that you are taking the reader on your trip with the story.

On interviewing people for nonfiction:

  1. Take a pen and paper.
  2. Do homework on the person before going.
  3. Make a list of possible questions.

On writing about a place:

  1. What made this place different from what everyone else said.
  2. What can you tell that’s not been said before.
  3. What can you tell that the reader doesn’t know already.

On science and technology writing:

  1. Use your own experience to connect the reader to some mechanism that also touches his life.
  2. Weave a scientific story around someone else.
  3. Help readers understand unfamiliar facts by relating to sights they are familiar with.
  4. Reduce the abstract principle to an image they can visualize.
  5. Write like a person, not a scientist.
  6. Readers identify with people not abstractions like profitability.
  7. Use short words that paints a vivid picture of everyday life.
  8. Use active verbs. Don’t use concept nouns.
  9. Take the coldness out of a technical process by relating to an experience we are all familiar with.

On interviewing someone for an article:

Remember you are a generalist trying to make his work public. He is the expert in his field.  You prod him to clarify statements that are so obvious to him that he assumes they are obvious to everyone else. Don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions.  If the expert thinks you are dumb that’s his problem.

Some questions to dig deep- why not? What else?



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