On Writing Well by William Zinsser in 5 minutes

If you like these notes, buy the book on Amazon.

In this photograph of the writer E.B. White, he has everything he needs: a writing implement, a piece of paper, and a receptacle for all the sentences that didn’t come out the way he wanted them to. Good writing will always require plain old hard thinking and the plain old tools of the English language. There are all kinds of methods, and any method that helps you say what you want to say is the right method for you.

The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.

Professional writers rewrite their sentences over and over and then rewrite what they have rewritten. Rewriting is the essence of writing well. You won’t write well until you realize writing is an evolving process, not a finished product. Writing is a craft, not an art. If your job is to write every day, you learn to do it like any other job.

The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.

Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. Writers must constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Then they must look at what they have written and ask: have I said it?

Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds — we are always slightly behind. Clutter is the laborious phrase that has pushed out the short word that means the same thing. Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.

The audience of one.

Who am I writing for is a fundamental question, and it has a fundamental answer: you are writing for yourself. You are who you are, the reader is who he or she is, and either you will get along or you won’t.

Words are the only tools you’ve got.

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.

All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem.

Ask yourself some basic questions before you start:

  • Where am going to I obtain the facts?
  • How am I going to organize the material?
  • In what capacity am I going to address the reader?
  • What pronoun and tense am I going to use?
  • What style, what tone?
  • What one point do I want to make?

The lead and the ending.

The hardest decision about any article is how to begin it. Readers want to know — very soon — what’s in it for them. Your lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading. It must grab the reader, tell the reader why the piece was written, and why he ought to read it. The provocative idea must continue with each paragraph to hold him or her in a tight grip, gradually adding information. The point of the information is to get readers so interested that they will stick around for the whole trip.

The perfect ending should take your reader slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right. When you’re ready to stop, stop. If you have presented all the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the nearest exit.

Verbs, adverbs, adjectives, sentences, and paragraphs.

  • Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb. Use precise verbs.
  • Most adverbs are unnecessary.
  • Make your adjectives should only do work that needs to be done.
  • Most writers don’t reach the period soon enough.
  • Surprisingly often, a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it.
  • Each sentence contains one thought. The first sentence of the next paragraph grows out of the last sentence of the paragraph. No writing decision is too small to be worth a large expenditure of time.
  • Keep your paragraphs short. Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, where as a long chunk of type can discover is a reader from even starting to read. But don’t go berserk. A succession of tiny paragraphs is as annoying as a paragraph that’s too long.

Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all.

Describing how your process works is valuable because it forces you to make sure you know how it works and that it forces you to take the reader through the same sequence of ideas and deductions that made the process clear to you.

The principle of all nonfiction writing: lead readers who know nothing, step-by-step, to a grasp of subjects they didn’t think they had an aptitude for or were too afraid they were too dumb to understand.

Never hesitate to imitate another writer.

Imitation is part of the creative process for anyone learning an art or a craft. Don’t worry that by imitating 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.

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 do and trying to figure out how they did it.

Be your self and your readers will follow you anywhere.

If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write. Trust your curiosity to connect with the curiosity of your readers.

Bring some part of your life to everything you write.

If you follow your affections 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.

Write as well as you can

My father was a man who loved his business. When he talked about it I never felt that he regarded it as a venture for making money; it was an art, to be practised with imagination and only the best materials.

If you would like to write better than everybody else, you have to want to write more than everybody else. You must take an obsessive pride in the smallest details of your craft. Take your talent as far as you can and guard it with your life. Writing well means believing in your writing in believing self, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel. You will write only as well as you make yourself write.

A reporter once asked Joe DiMaggio how he managed to play so well so consistently, and he said: “I always thought that there was at least one person in the stands who would never see me play, and I didn’t want to let him down.”

Again, if you like these notes, do buy the book on Amazon. If you want to be a highlighting hero, send your book notes to blake@talkpluto.com.

My name is Blake, I live in Toronto, Canada and I’m working on Pluto.