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On Writing Well - William Zinsser: Book Review

I first came across William Zinsser’s 'On Writing Well' about a year ago, but put it down having flicked through a couple of the chapters that I felt were relevant.

It came back onto my radar a month ago and this time I decided to read it cover to cover as I was sure there were some insights that I’d missed due to my haphazard approach the first time around.

What stood out in my memory from my first reading of the book was the emphasis on how words like a bit, a little, kind of, quite, pretty much and too dilute our sentences and I’ve been trying to avoid them in my writing ever since.

Other things that stood out for me this time were:

  • Avoid unnecessary words e.g. blared loudly or grinned widely. It’s difficult to blare in any other way and if you’re grinning it implied that your mouth is open widely.

  • Delete troublesome phrases. If you’re having trouble working out the structure for a sentence, it might be beneficial to get rid of it and see if the rest of the paragraph still makes sense. Often it will.

  • Rewriting. The author emphasises over and over again the importance of rewriting a piece of text until you’re happy with it. This consists mostly of reshaping and tightening previous drafts. The way it’s described sounds very similar to code refactoring. My colleague Ian Robinson recommended 'Revising Prose' as a useful book to read next in this area.

  • Assume the reader knows nothing. The advice in the chapter on science and technology was probably the most applicable for the type of writing I do and I thought this section was particularly apt:

    Describing how a process works is valuable for two reasons. It forces you to make sure that you know how it works. Then it forces you to take the reader through the same sequence of ideas and deductions that made the process clear to you.

    I’ve found this to be the case multiple times although you can achieve the same benefits by presenting a talk on a topic; the benefits aren’t unique to writing.

  • Explain your judgements. Don’t say something is interesting. Instead explain what makes it interesting and let the reader decide whether or not it deserves that label.

  • Use simple words, be specific, be human and use active verbs. I often fall into the trap of using passive verbs which makes it difficult for the reader to know which part of the sentence they apply to. We want to minimise the amount of translation the reader has to do to understand our writing.

  • Use a paragraph as a logical unit. I remember learning this at secondary school but I’ve drifted towards a style of writing that treats the sentence as a logical block. My intuition tells me that people find it easier to read text when it’s in smaller chunks but I will experiment with grouping my ideas together in paragraphs where that seems sensible.

I gleaned these insights mostly from the first half of the book.

The second half focused on different forms of writing and showed how to apply the lessons from earlier in the book. Although not all the forms were applicable to me I still found it interesting to read as the author has a nice way with words and you want to keep reading the next sentence.

My main concern having read the book is ensuring that I don’t paralyse my ability to finish blog posts by rewriting ad infinitum.

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