On Writing Well (William Knowlton Zinsser)

“On Writing Well” is the book that came from a course taught by William Zinsser at Yale University, and has been praised for its wise advice, clarity, and warmth of style.
This is a book for anyone who wants to learn to write or feels the need to write, no matter what topic. Whether you want to write about people or places, science and technology, business, sports, the arts, or yourself, On Writing Well gives you both the fundamentals and the insights of a distinguished professional.
Whether you are a professional writer or simply want to put your personal and family experiences in writing, William Zinsser explains how to do it properly.

Literature and Theology: the connection

There is an intimate connection between the theology (in the broadest sense of the term, as understood in the belief of ASH = Spirituality/Philosophy/Truth Seeking) that is dealt with in this site and literature. Each Biblical text has its own different style, yet one thing all Holy Scriptures have in common: they know how to get right to the Soul, to stay there.
Dealing with such complex topics is a job that requires time and training, and this treatise by William Knowlton Zinsser is just like a manual for those who want to improve themselves. The professor clearly illustrates how to improve the way you express yourself, and you will find very useful advice for anyone who loves to write.
A book to read for sure and in this article Abrahamic Study Hall will try to put together some pills of this great work.

Author

William Knowlton Zinsser (October 7, 1922 – May 12, 2015) was an American writer, editor, literary critic, and teacher. He began his career as a journalist for the New York Herald Tribune, where he worked as a writer, theater editor, film critic, and editorial writer.

Zinsser taught writing at Yale University, and served as executive editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club from 1979 to 1987. He retired from teaching at the New School and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism due to advancing glaucoma.
His 18 books include in addition to On Writing Well (in its 30th edition) Writing to Learn; Writing with a Word Processor; Mitchell & Ruff; Spring Training; American Places; Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs; Writing About Your Life; and most recently, Writing Places, an autobiography. The American Scholar ran William Zinsser’s weekly web publication, “Zinsser on Friday,” featuring his short essays on writing, the arts, and popular culture.
In his books, Zinsser emphasizes the word “economy.” Author James J. Kilpatrick, in his book The Writer’s Art, says that if he were limited to one book on how to write, it would be William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and adds, “Zinsser’s solid theory is that ‘writing improves in direct relation to the number of things we can keep out of it.”

Quotes: On Writing Well

“Beware, then, of the long word that’s no better than the short word: “assistance” (help), “numerous” (many), “facilitate” (ease), “Individual” (man or woman), “remainder” (rest), “initial” (first), “implement” (do), “sufficient” (enough), “attempt” (try), “referred to as” (called), and hundreds more. Beware of all the slippery new fad words: paradigm and parameter, prioritize and potentialize. They are all weeds that will smother what you write. Don’t dialogue with someone you can talk to. Don’t interface with anybody.”“Decide what you want to do. Then decide to do it. Then do it.”
 
“Good writing doesn’t come naturally, though most people seem to think it does. Professional writers are constantly bearded by people who say they’d like to “try a little writing sometime”—meaning when they retire from their real profession, like insurance or real estate, which is hard. Or they say, “I could write a book about that.” I doubt it. Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”
 
“Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose.”
 
“Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience, every reader is a different person.”
 
“Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”
 
“There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published. Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is to come to terms with your life narrative. Another is to work through some of life’s hardest knocks—loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace.”
 

“Simplify, simplify.”

“Ci sono molti buoni motivi per scrivere che non hanno nulla a che fare con l’essere pubblicati. La scrittura è un potente meccanismo di ricerca e una delle sue soddisfazioni è fare i conti con la narrativa della tua vita. Un altro è affrontare alcuni dei momenti più duri della vita: perdita, dolore, malattia, dipendenza, delusione, fallimento, e trovare comprensione e conforto”.“Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”

 
“The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.”
 
“the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”
 
“Less is more.”
 
“Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.”
 
“There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.”
 
“If the nails are weak, your house will collapse. If your verbs are weak and your syntax is rickety, your sentences will fall apart.”
 
“Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy?”
 
“As a writer you must keep a tight rein on your subjective self—the traveler touched by new sights and sounds and smells—and keep an objective eye on the reader.”
 
“Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.”
 
“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: to press the DELETE key and see an unnecessary word or phrase or sentence vanish into the electricity. I like to replace a humdrum word with one that has more precision or color. I like to strengthen the transition between one sentence and another. I like to rephrase a drab sentence to give it a more pleasing rhythm or a more graceful musical line. 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 wont the game.”
“Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.”
 

““Writers are the custodians of memory…”

 
“The reader is someone with an attention span of about 30 seconds.”
 
“Thinking clearly is a conscious act that writers must force on themselves,”
“writing is a craft, not an art, and that the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself.”
 
“…being “rather unique” is no more possible than being rather pregnant.”
 
“I think a sentence is a fine thing to put a preposition at the end of.”
 
“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; we can’t believe that it wasn’t born perfect. But the odds are close to 100 percent that it wasn’t. Most writers don’t initially say what they want to say, or say it as well as they could.”
 
“It wont 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 be careful enough.”
 
“Don’t annoy your readers by over-explaining–by telling them something they already know or can figure out. Try not to use words like “surprisingly,” “predictably” and “of course,” which put a value on a fact before the reader encounters the fact. Trust your material.”
 
“Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.”
 
“Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.”
 
“But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every words 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,”
 
“Every writing project must be reduced before you start to write.”
 
“But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long words 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.”
 
“Most nonfiction writers have a definitiveness complex. They feel that they are under some obligation—to the subject, to their honor, to the gods of writing—to make their article the last word. It’s a commendable impulse, but there is no last word.”
 
“Most writers sow adjectives almost unconsciously into the soil of their prose to make it more lush and pretty, and the sentences become longer and longer as they fill up with stately elms and frisky kittens and hard-bitten detectives and sleepy lagoons. This is adjective-by-habit – a habit you should get rid of. Not every oak has to be gnarled. The adjective exists solely as a decoration is a self-indulgence for the writer and a burden for the reader.”
 
“Today the outlandish becomes routine overnight. The humorist is trying to say that it’s still outlandish.”
 
“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.”
 
“One man’s romantic sunrise is another man’s hangover.”
 
“Good writing is lean and confident.”
 

“Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful? Simplify, simplify.”

 
“…writing is a craft, not an art, and that the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself.”
 
“Adjectives are used as nouns (“greats,” “notables”). Nouns are used as verbs (“to host”), or they are chopped off to form verbs (“enthuse,” “emote”), or they are padded to form verbs (“beef up,” “put teeth into”). This is a world where eminent people are “famed” and their associates are “staffers,” where the future is always “upcoming” and someone is forever “firing off” a note. Nobody in America has sent a note or a memo or a telegram in years. Famed diplomat Condoleezza Rice, who hosts foreign notables to beef up the morale of top State Department staffers, sits down and fires off a lot of notes. Notes that are fired off are always fired in anger and from a sitting position. What the weapon is I’ve never found out.”
 
“Nobody turns so quickly into a bore as a traveler home from his travels. He enjoyed his trip so much that he wants to tell us all about it—and “all” is what we don’t want to hear. We only want to hear some.”
 
“But nothing has replaced the writer. He or she is still stuck with the same old job of saying something that other people will want to read.”
 
“The adjective that exists solely as decoration is a self-indulgence for the writer and a burden for the reader.”
 
“I use “perpetrated” because it’s the kind of word that passive-voice writers are fond of. They prefer long words of Latin origin to short Anglo-Saxon words—which compounds their trouble and makes their sentences still more glutinous. Short is better than long.”
 
“Writing is an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper…”
 
“Go to your desk on Monday morning and write about some event that’s still vivid in your memory. It doesn’t have to be long—three pages, five pages—but it should have a beginning and an end. Put that episode in a folder and get on with your life. On Tuesday morning, do the same thing. Tuesday’s episode doesn’t have to be related to Monday’s episode. Take whatever memory comes calling; your subconscious mind, having been put to work, will start delivering your past. Keep this up for two months, or three months, or six months. Don’t be impatient to start writing your “memoir”—the one you had in mind before you began. Then, one day, take all your entries out of their folder and spread them on the floor. (The floor is often a writer’s best friend.) Read them through and see what they tell you and what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoir is about—and what it’s not about.”
 
“It requires writers to do two things that by their metabolism are impossible. They must relax, and they must have confidence.”
 
“There is no minimum length for a sentence that’s acceptable in the eyes of God.”
 
“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.”
 
“But apart from these lazinesses of logic, what makes the story so tired is the failure of the writer to reach for anything but the nearest cliche’. “Shouldered his way,” “only to be met,” “crashing into his face,” “waging a lonely war,” “corruption that is rife,” “sending shock waves,” “New York’s finest,” – these dreary phrases constitute writing at its most banal. We know just what to expect. No surprise awaits us in the form of an unusual word, an oblique look. We are in the hands of a hack, and we know it right away, We stop reading.”
 
“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.”
 
“Soon after you confront the matter of preserving your identity, another question will occur to you: “Who am I writing for?” It’s a fundamental question, and it has a fundamental answer: 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. Don’t worry about whether the reader will “get it” if you indulge a sudden impulse for humor. If it amuses you in the act of writing, put it in. (It can always be taken out, but only you can put it in.) 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. If you lose the dullards back in the dust, you don’t want them anyway. This”
 

“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.”

 
“Writing is such a lonely work that I try to keep myself cheered up.”
 
“There are some writers who sweep us along so strongly in their current of energy–Normal mailer, Tom Wolfe, Toni Morrison, William F. Buckley, Jr., Hunter Thompson, David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers–that we assume that when they go to work the words just flow. Nobody thinks of the effort they made every morning to turn on the switch. You also have to turn on the switch. Nobody is going to do it for you.”
 
“Nobody has made the point better than George Orwell in his translation into modern bureaucratic fuzz of this famous verse from Ecclesiastes: I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. Orwell’s version goes: Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”
 
“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.”
 
“When we say we like a writer’s style, what we mean is that we like his personality as he expresses it on paper. 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.”
 
“And yet, on balance, affirmative action has, I think, been a qualified success.” A 13-word sentence with five hedging words. I give it first prize as the most wishy-washy sentence in modern public discourse,”
 
“The race in writing is not to the swift but to the original.”
 
“The final advantage is the same that applies in every other competitive venture. If you would like to write better than everyone else, you have to want to write better than everyone 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–whose sights may be different from yours, whose standards are not as high. Too many writers are browbeaten into settling for less than their best.”
 
“They sit down to commit an act of literature, and the self who emerges on paper is far stiffer than the person who sat down to write. The problem is to find the real man or woman behind the tension. Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is.”
 
“Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s”
 
“Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.”
 
“If you’re not a person who says “indeed” or “moreover,” or who calls someone an individual (“he’s a fine individual”), please don’t write it.”
 

“Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all.”

 
“It wont 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”
 
“Most nonfiction writers have a definitiveness complex. They feel that they are under some obligation—to the subject, to their honor, to the gods of writing—to make their article the last word. It’s a commendable impulse, but there is no last word. What you think is definitive today will turn undefinitive by tonight, and writers who doggedly pursue every last fact will find themselves pursuing the rainbow and never settling down to write. Nobody can write a book or an article “about” something. Tolstoy couldn’t write a book about war and peace, or Melville a book about whaling. They made certain reductive decisions about time and place and about individual characters in that time and place—one man pursuing one whale. 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.”
 
“Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. If you’re not a person who says “indeed” or “moreover,” or who calls someone an individual (“he’s a fine individual”), please don’t write it.”
“But on the question of who you’re writing for, don’t be eager to please.”
 
“Don’t annoy your readers by over-explaining—by telling them something they already know or can figure out.”
 
“Clichés are the enemy of taste.”
 
“Myself’ is the refuge of idiots taught early that ‘me’ is a dirty word.”
 
“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.”
 
“Truth needs no adornment.”
 
“Remember that words are the only tools you’ve got. Learn to use them with originality and care. And also remember: somebody out there is listening.”
 
“Unfortunately, an equally strong negative current—fear—is at work. Fear of writing gets 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.”
 
“An occasional short sentence can carry a tremendous punch. It stays in the reader’s ear.”
 
“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. This can often happen in a writing class. Inexperienced students are chilled to find themselves in the same class with students whose byline has appeared in the college newspaper. But writing for the college paper is no great credential; I’ve often found that the hares who write for the paper are overtaken by the tortoises who move studiously toward the goal of mastering the craft.”
 
“There was a time when neighbors took care of each other,” he recalled. [Put “remembered” first to establish a reflective tone.] However, it no longer seemed to happen that way. [The contrast provided by “however” must come first. Start with “however.” Establish local America as well.]] He wondered if it was because everyone in the modern world was so busy. [All of these sentences are the same length and have the same soporific rhythm; turn this into a question?] It occurred to him that people today have so many things to do that they don’t have time for old-fashioned friendship. [The sentence essentially repeats the previous sentence; kill it or warm it up with specific details.] Things didn’t work that way in America in previous eras. [The reader is still in the present; reverse the sentence to tell him that he is now in the past. “America” is no longer needed if inserted earlier.] And he knew that in other countries the situation was very different, as he remembered from his years living in the villages of Spain and Italy. [The reader is still in America. He uses a negative transition word to bring him to Europe. The sentence is also too flaccid. Break it into two sentences]? It almost seemed to him that as people became wealthier and built their homes further apart, they became more isolated from the essentials of life. [Irony has been put off too long. Plant the irony early. Refine the paradox about wealth]. And there was another thought that troubled him. [This is the real point of the paragraph; it signals to the reader that it is important. Avoid the weak construction “there was.”] His friends had abandoned him when he needed them most during his recent illness. [Reshape to end with “more”; the last word is the one that stays in the reader’s ear and gives the sentence its punch. Hold the illness for the next sentence; it’s a separate thought]. It was almost as if they found him guilty of doing something shameful. [Introduce illness here as the reason for the shame. omit “guilty”; it is implied.] He remembered reading somewhere about societies in primitive parts of the world in which the sick were shunned, though he had never heard of such a ritual in America. [The sentence begins slowly and remains lazy and boring. Break it up into shorter units. Break the ironic point.]” is implied.] He remembered reading somewhere about societies in primitive parts of the world in which the sick were shunned, though he had never heard of such a ritual in America. [The sentence begins slowly and remains lazy and boring. Break it up into shorter units. Break the ironic point.]” is implied.] He remembered reading somewhere about societies in primitive parts of the world in which the sick were shunned, though he had never heard of such a ritual in America. [The sentence begins slowly and remains lazy and boring. Break it up into shorter units. Break up the ironic point].”
 
“Nobody told all the new computer writers that the essence of writing is rewriting.”
 

“Get used to reading what is written today and what was written by previous teachers. Writing is learned by imitation. If someone asked me how I learned to write, I’d say I learned by reading the men and women who were writing the kind of writing I wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it. But she cultivates the best models.”

“Don’t start a sentence with “however”—it hangs there like a wet dishrag. And don’t end with “however”—by that time it has lost its howeverness.”
 
“Take an adult chemist or physicist or engineer and ask him or her to write a report, and you’ll see something close to panic. “No! Don’t make us write!” they say. They also have a common affliction: fear of writing.”
“EB White argues the case convincingly in The Elements of Style, a book every writer should read once a year, when he suggests trying to rearrange any phrase that has survived for a century or two, such as “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
Times like these test men’s souls.
How hard it is to live in these times!
These are trying times for the souls of men.
From the soul’s point of view, these are trying times.
Paine’s sentence is like poetry and the other four are like oatmeal, which is the divine mystery of the creative process. Good prose writers must be part poet, always listening to what they write. EB White is one of my favorite stylists because I am aware that I am with a man who cares about the cadences and sounds of language. I love (in my ear) the pattern his words make as they fall into a sentence. I try to speculate how in rewriting the sentence he reassembled it to end with a phrase that will linger momentarily, or how he chose one word over another because he was looking for some emotional weight. It is the difference between, say, “serene” and “tranquil,” one so soft, the other strangely unsettling because of the unusual n and q.
Such considerations of sound and rhythm should go into everything you write. If all your sentences move at the same labored gait, which you too recognize as mortal but don’t know how to cure, read them aloud. (I write entirely by ear and read everything out loud before letting it out into the world.) You’ll begin to hear where the problem lies. See if you can get variety by reversing the order of a sentence, or substituting a word that has freshness or strangeness, or altering the length of your sentences so they don’t all sound like they came out of the same machine. An occasional short sentence can pack a tremendous punch. It stays in the reader’s ear.”
 
“And yet, on balance, affirmative action has, I think, been a qualified success.” A 13-word sentence with five hedging words. I give it first prize as the most wishy-washy sentence in modern public discourse, though a rival would be his analysis of how to ease boredom among assembly-line workers: “And so, at last, I come to the one firm conviction that I mentioned at the beginning: it is that the subject is too new for final judgments.”
 

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