Timeless Writing Advice From William Zinsser’s ‘On Writing Well’
10 must-remember lessons from one of the most celebrated books on writing
Zinsser’s 300+ page text, which reflects the former Yale instructor’s dedication to lucidity, simplicity, and humanity in writing, presents the following key thesis:
“[W]riting isn’t a skill that some people are born with and others aren’t[.] … Writing is talking to someone else on paper. Anybody who can think clearly can write clearly, about any subject at all.” (2001, p. x)
Zinsser presents a variety of strategies designed to help writers think more clearly about the words they use and the ways they use them.
Part 1 of his book, Principles, contains dozens of valuable lessons, practical bits of advice, and candid warnings on what writers ought and ought not to do in their work.
In this article, I’m going to explore 10 pivotal lessons from the Principles section, each of which offers crucial insights into and concrete guidance on one or more aspects of the writing process.
Table of Contents (clickable)1. Continuously Rewrite Your Words to Make Them Great
2. Strip Every Sentence to Its Cleanest Components
3. Clear Thinking Produces Clear Writing
4. It’s Your Responsibility to Not Confuse or Lose the Attention of Your Reader
5. Write as If Your Reader Is Encountering Your Writing for the First Time
6. Be Vulnerable in Your Writing, and Use Inclusive, Welcoming Language That Helps Create Relationships Between You and Your Readers
7. Simplify, Simplify, Simplify
8. Actively Study — Don’t Ignore — the Foundational Principles of Good Writing
9. Learn the Meaning of Words, and Use Your Dictionary Often
10. Imitate the Best Writers out There
Lesson 1: Continuously Rewrite Your Words to Make Them Great
“[V]ery few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time or the fifth time. … [P]rofessional writers rewrite their sentences over and over and then rewrite what they have rewritten. … With each rewrite [you must] try to make what [you] have written tighter, stronger and more precise, eliminating every element that's not doing useful work.” (p. xi, 4, 12)
Exceptional writing is the result of a commitment to careful and diligent rewriting.
Putting words to paper or screen is only part of the writing task; the other half consists of continuously and painstakingly editing what you’ve written until your words signify the best articulation you’re capable of presenting.
Very few writers, if any at all, produce brilliance on their first try.
Instead, they craft phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and even entire manuscripts again and again until they’re finally convinced that what they’ve written is as clear, coherent, and persuasive as possible.
Some writers prefer to maintain a firm distinction between ‘writing’ and ‘editing’.
They see the former as the initial, unimpeded, and furious ‘dump’ of ideas whereas the latter is said to comprise the meticulous reconsideration, reworking, and enhancement of everything to which a first draft gives rise.
Others like to edit as they write, intentionally seeking to improve their words in real-time.
I belong to the second camp, having edited as I go, so to speak, for 15+ years now.
Rather than separate practices, I’ve always conceived of writing and rewriting as being intimately connected to each other.
No doubt this is because the philosopher in me can’t help asking, “Why leave a sentence or paragraph less intelligible or convincing than it otherwise could be?”
Regardless of your personal approach to editing, what’s clear is this:
You should never rest content with the first draft of a piece of writing.
In virtually every case, it’s possible to express your ideas more effectively, to better respect the technical rules of grammar and syntax, and to connect with your readers in more meaningful and impactful ways.
“Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.” (p. 17)
“If all your sentences move at the same plodding gait, which even you recognize as deadly but don’t know how to cure, read them aloud. … See if you can gain variety by reversing the order of a sentence, or by substituting a word that has freshness or oddity, or by altering the length of your sentences so they don’t all sound as if they came out of the same mold.” (p. 37)
In short, take Zinsser’s advice and put as much effort into editing your words as you do to initially writing them out; this will do wonders for the clarity and readability of your writing.
Lesson 2: Strip Every Sentence to Its Cleanest Components
“[T]he secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. 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 that must be eliminated].” (pp. 7–8)
As an editor, one of the most common mistakes I see aspiring writers make is including too many words in a given sentence (or paragraph).
I don’t necessarily mean the sentence is too long in terms of absolute character count; instead, the problem is that the sentence contains one or more words that don’t actually do anything, i.e., they don’t serve any identifiable function or purpose.
Novice writers often seem to believe verbose writing is good writing, which leads them to make their writing more ‘wordy’ than it needs to be.
Writing that overtly tries to present itself as being more sophisticated than it actually is not only sticks out like a sore thumb, as it were, but it also leaves a bad taste in the reader’s mouth because it comes across as pretentious and/or unnecessarily complicated.
As I’ve written elsewhere,
“It might go against the advice you’ve received from others, but, often, the considered use of a few words can actually be far more effective than the clumsy use of ‘flowery’ language.”
When Zinsser implores us to write clean sentences, he’s asking us to strip our writing to its essential components precisely so that we can make it as clear and comprehensible as possible:
“Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose.” (p. 13)
You can think about the function or purpose of a word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph in at least two ways, both of which are crucial to writing well:
- Technically — is this word technically necessary for the intelligibility of the sentence?
- Relevancy — is this sentence or paragraph relevant to the other themes I’ve discussed in this piece so far?
In either case, if the answer is ‘no’ then, ceteris paribus, you should eliminate the word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph. It’s likely redundant or otherwise unnecessary.
You should always try to write as straightforwardly as you can.
As I’ve pointed out before,
“You can’t change people’s lives with your words if your words are incomprehensible.”
If you become frustrated whilst trying to rework your sentences, take refuge in Zinsser’s concession that:
“Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident.” (p. 12)
As for how, exactly, to write clearer sentences, read this.
Lesson 3: Clear Thinking Produces Clear Writing
“Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English. [A writer] may get away with it for a paragraph or two, but soon the reader will be lost, and there’s no sin so grave, for the reader will not easily be lured back.” (p. 9)
Exceptional writing is fundamentally the product of exceptional thinking.
Systematic, clear, and logical writing emerges only from systematic, clear, and logical thinking.
Thus, learning how to carefully and methodically think through your ideas and make sense of them is a prerequisite to conveying your thoughts to others in convincing, engaging, and distinct ways.
As I’ve explained elsewhere,
“Without exception, writing begins inside the mind. Before a single word is ever written or typed out, it begins as a thought.”
One essential component, then, of enhancing your writing is enhancing your thinking. In the absence of efforts to continuously improve the quality of your thinking, you become much more likely to produce disorganized, jumbled, and disconnected writing.
As Zinsser points out, writers have no choice but to intentionally work on their thinking if they truly want to refine their craft:
“Thinking clearly is a conscious act that writers must force on themselves, as if they were working on any other project that requires logic: making a shopping list or doing an algebra problem. Good writing doesn’t come naturally, though most people seem to think it does.” (p. 12)
Good writing doesn’t come naturally.
For one, developing and sustaining first-rate critical thinking takes a lot of hard work to accomplish.
I’ve made the case that studying philosophy is an extremely effective way of elevating your thinking so that you can achieve greater clarity in your writing.
More practically, analytical thinking and strong writing emerge in the context of explicit efforts to create environments that allow you to concentrate and to perform at your best.
Lesson 4: It’s Your Responsibility to Not Confuse or Lose the Attention of Your Reader
“[T]he reader is an impatient bird, perched on the thin edge of distraction or sleep. … [T]here’s no excuse for losing readers through sloppy workmanship. If they doze off in the middle of your article because you have been careless about a technical detail, the fault is yours.” (pp. 25–26)
Writers are responsible for ensuring not only that their words remain comprehensible to their readers, but also that such words keep readers engaged and interested.
If somebody refuses to read something you’ve written, it’s your fault — period.
In order to convince people to engage with your work, you must think about and approach your writing in a different way than you would if you were merely writing for yourself, e.g., writing in a personal journal.
When it comes to the online world specifically, one of the biggest mistakes I see people make when publishing content is ignoring, or significantly under-attending to, the needs and wants of their audiences.
As I recently explained,
“You can’t legitimately complain that nobody seems to care about your writing if your words don’t help, inspire, or teach your readers.”
In addition to providing genuine value to your readers, you must safeguard against the possibility that technical errors in your writing will annoy, confuse, or otherwise disappoint your audience:
“If the reader is lost, it’s usually because the writer hasn’t been careful enough. … Perhaps a sentence is so excessively cluttered that the reader, hacking through the verbiage, simply doesn’t know what it means. Perhaps a sentence has been so shoddily constructed that the reader could read it in several ways. Perhaps the writer has switched pronouns in mid-sentence, or has switched tenses, so the reader loses track of who is talking or when the action took place. … Perhaps the writer has used a word incorrectly by not taking the trouble to look it up.” (p. 9)
This quote alone is enough to justify purchasing Zinsser’s book and reading it from front to back several times.
The point he’s making here is this:
As a writer, it’s your duty to do everything you can to remove the ‘friction’ that exists between what you write and what your readers understand.
Take responsibility for your words, and make them as strong and coherent as they can be.
Do the work, as Seth Godin or Steven Pressfield might say.
Lesson 5: Write As If Your Reader Is Encountering Your Writing for the First Time
“Writers must…constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they don’t know. Then they must look at what they have written and ask: have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time? If it’s not, some fuzz has worked its way into the machinery. The clear writer is someone clearheaded enough to see this stuff for what it is: fuzz.” (p. 12)
Zinsser expresses here the same bit of advice I’ve been giving to writers for many years now, which is this:
You should always write in such a way that anybody who comes across your words can understand your writing.
You should not assume your readers are sufficiently familiar with the ideas you discuss (and/or with your personal life history) to the point where you don’t have to fully explain your assertions, concepts, and arguments.
As I’ve said elsewhere,
“It’s always better to explicitly articulate your thoughts than to presume your words are being received as you intend them to be.”
Anybody who stumbles across your work ought to be able to comprehend your writing. There’s no good reason your writing should ever confuse your readers.
Eliminating potential confusion requires that you assume very little, if anything at all, of your reader.
This has nothing to do with judging the intelligence or experience of your audience and everything to do with proactively preventing the possibility that your words will be misunderstood because you’ve wrongly assumed one or more things about your readers.
I’m not suggesting, like so many others do, you should always write as if you’re speaking to a 10-year-old.
That’s silly advice in my opinion.
Instead, what I’m encouraging you to do is to publish every bit of content as a standalone piece, i.e., as an article or essay that can exist on its own and remain fully intelligible to anybody who wants to read it.
Each time you write something you must put yourself in your reader’s shoes, as it were, and ask yourself, “Would this make sense to me if I were encountering it for the first time?”
If the answer is ‘no’, you have no choice but to rewrite your words until they are more accessible to your audience.
Don’t make your readers do unnecessary work; express yourself as completely and thoroughly as you can, and make your words understandable to anybody who happens to come across them.
Lesson 6: Be Vulnerable in Your Writing, and Use Inclusive, Welcoming Language That Helps Create Relationships Between You and Your Readers
“The reader will notice if you are putting on airs. Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself. … Writing is an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper, and it will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity. Therefore I urge people to write in the first person: to use ‘I’ and ‘me’ and ‘we’ and ‘us’.” (pp. 20–21)
I recently published an essay detailing The H.I.T. — Help, Inspire, Teach — Strategy for writing articles people actually want to read.
In that piece, I argued, as Zinsser does above, that:
Writers ought to use inclusive and welcoming language that helps foster a relationship between reader and writer.
- Every time you write a piece of content you should ask yourself, “How, exactly, does this help, inspire, or teach my reader?”;
- If you struggle to answer this question, it’s likely a sign you’ve fallen into the trap of writing to and for yourself rather than to and for your audience;
- Use words like ‘we’, ‘our’, and ‘us’ in order to create a sense of community and belongingness in your writing; and
- If you can’t adequately answer the question, “Why would anybody care to read or share this?”, you probably need to work harder on building meaningful connections between your own story and insights on the one hand and the interests and concerns of your readers on the other.
Zinsser admits that writers have to achieve a delicate balance between expressing vulnerability and authenticity but without losing the attention and interest of their readers (pp. 25–26).
As a writer, you must learn how to be yourself and not care what others think of you and to please your audience and not let your readers slip into boredom or confusion.
Here’s how I think about this apparent paradox:
- By all means, be yourself: write about your personal experiences, share your fears, concerns, and triumphs, express vulnerability and explore your emotions, stay true to your voice, and don’t compromise on your values;
- However, at the same time: don’t become a self-indulgent and self-obsessed writer; don’t lose sight of the fact that your writing goes out into the world for others to consume. Don’t forget about the needs and wants of your readers. Always try to build authentic connections with your audience by trying to help and inspire other people — even if only indirectly.
In other words, remain faithful to your own voice but always keep your reader in mind whilst doing so.
Lesson 7: Simplify, Simplify, Simplify
“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?” (p. 17)
Clarity is the foundation of effective writing because it’s that which makes your words comprehensible to others.
Achieving clarity often requires writing in much simpler and less ‘elegant’ ways than we might prefer.
As writers, we sometimes convince ourselves that the use of complex, loquacious language somehow enhances the quality of our ideas or the attractiveness of our prose.
More often than not, however, verbosity does little more than make our writing needlessly complicated, if not outright frustrating to read.
Having worked with many writers over the years, it’s clear to me that one of the most effective and practical strategies aspiring writers can use to improve the quality of their writing is to commit to using much simpler sentences.
Brilliant ideas often get lost in the murkiness of unclear prose. It’s far too easy to let wordiness undo the good work an excellent idea performs. When you write, say exactly what you mean to say and nothing else.
To speak metaphorically, you should take a scalpel to your words and, as Zinsser advises, “prune [them] ruthlessly” (p. 17) until they’re as exact as can be.
A good habit to develop is the practice of constantly asking yourself, “Do I really need this word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph? If I were to eliminate it, would my writing become more or less intelligible or impactful here?”
If you can remove something in a sentence without losing the sentence’s fundamental meaning, you should do so—at least in most cases.
Lesson 8: Actively Study — Don’t Ignore — the Foundational Principles of Good Writing
“You must know what the essential tools [of writing] are and what job they were designed to do. [Using] 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.” (p. 19)
If I could choose to highlight only one line from part 1 of Zinsser’s book, it might very well be:
“You can never forget that you are practicing a craft that’s based on certain principles.” (p. 19)
Excellent writing is excellent because, for one, it respects the foundational principles upon which such excellence is built.
Despite the increasing tendency to relativize ever-more aspects of writing — i.e., to insist that because language and written communication evolve, the conventions of yesterday need not be honoured today — it remains true that:
There are certain rules of writing that ought to be followed — period.
As I’ve pointed out before:
“Yes, writing is an art that’s open to interpretation, creativity, and the application of individual style. Factually speaking, however, there are right and wrong ways of doing certain things. As a writer, it’s your responsibility to familiarize yourself with and to apply the formal rules that govern proper written communication.”
Although their specifics will differ by language, reference system, and/or country, the following kinds of questions have definite answers, i.e., they are (usually) not a matter of interpretation or debate:
- How do I spell this word?
- Can I use a semicolon here?
- Can I use a comma here?
- Must I use the singular or plural version of this word?
- Should I single-space and indent this quotation or double-space it and keep it within the main body of the text?
- Are sentence fragments permissible?
- Do I have to maintain consistency between tenses in this paragraph?
- Am I permitted to use both footnotes and endnotes in this document?
- When should I write out numbers as words as compared to their numerical forms?
These questions, and a host of similar ones, have correct and incorrect answers you have no choice but to study, learn, and memorize.
There’s no shortcut to developing comprehensive knowledge of the formal rules of the English language.
You must gradually build up your understanding of the various parameters and principles that govern proper grammar, spelling, syntax, and so on.
Take a look at the bottom of this article for a list of suggested resources to help you on your journey.
Lesson 9: Learn the Meaning of Words, and Use Your Dictionary Often
“You must fight [clichéd] phrases or you’ll sound like every hack. 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. The English language is rich in strong and supple words. Take the time to root around and find the ones you want.” (p. 33)
As a philosopher, I pay very close attention to the meaning of words.
After all, what something does or should mean — including both its formal definition and its wider significance or importance —often rests at the heart of our most passionate and fierce social and political debates.
As a writer, you must be extremely careful with your language at all times. Attend closely to the terms and phrases you use, lest you be misunderstood and possibly attacked for your positions.
It’s your responsibility to ensure you use words correctly, which requires regularly consulting the dictionary.
If you’re even slightly unsure about the meaning of a word, you should always take the time to check its definition(s) and thereby correct any confusion you might have.
I use the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) on a daily basis, particularly when I’m writing essays.
If you don’t have access to the OED, I suggest using Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary.
Zinsser explicitly recommends writers keep a dictionary close by at all times:
“[G]et in the habit of using dictionaries. … If you have any doubt of what a word means, look it up. Learn its etymology and notice what curious branches its original root has put forth. See if it has any meanings you didn’t know it had. Master the small gradations between words that seem to be synonyms.” (p. 35)
He also advocates the use of a thesaurus:
“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.” (p. 36)
Thesaurus.com is one browser tab I never close. I use this website dozens of times per day, every day.
In short, you must dedicate yourself to developing a more elaborate and expansive vocabulary if you truly want to become a better writer.
Indeed, the more ways you can think to express yourself, the more multidimensional, sophisticated, and inviting your writing will become.
Don’t shy away from using your dictionary, and never stop learning (and relearning) the meaning of words.
Lesson 10: Imitate the Best Writers out There
“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 do and trying to figure out how they did it. But cultivate the best models. Don’t assume that because an article is in a newspaper or a magazine it must be good.” (p. 35)
Zinsser’s final bit of timeless writing advice is to imitate the best writers out there in order to elevate your own abilities.
Determining who the ‘best writers’ are isn’t an easy or objective undertaking, and Zinsser is wise to warn writers against blindly accepting the notion that popular writing equals good writing.
Nevertheless, enough has been written about the ‘most important’ and ‘most influential’ writers of the last several hundred years for you to at least develop a sense of which authors and essayists you should (and shouldn’t) try to emulate.
Assuming you’ve compiled a list of people whose writing you want to imitate, here are four key questions you can use to guide your efforts:
1. How does the author organize their writing?
- Do they begin by explicitly stating the central ideas of which they want to convince their audience? Or do they provide a bit of context and background first and then progress towards articulating their thesis and main argument?
- How do they link different ideas? Is it easy or difficult to anticipate which ideas follow each other? Why do they embrace one approach instead of another?
- How often and in what ways do they remind the reader of the primary claims they’re establishing?
- How do they structure concluding paragraphs?
2. What sorts of language and voice does the author use?
- Do they write in the first-, second-, or third-person or by using a combination of several voices? How would their writing change if they were to switch from one voice to another?
- What about tenses — past, present, future and each of their different variations? Which tense(s) do they use in their writing? Why do you think this is?
- Is their prose witty, entertaining, fast-paced, highly descriptive, and engaging? Or do they favour more of a measured and exact approach, being patient with their words and staying focused on one detailed point at a time?
3. What kinds of stylistic choices are evident in the author’s works?
- How do they stress their most important ideas to the reader?
- Do they italicize words? Do they use bold font? Do they write in short sentences for added ‘punch’? Why are these techniques effective or ineffective?
- Do they make light or heavy use of quotations? Why do you think this is?
- Would their writing be easier to grasp and more enjoyable to read if they were to make different stylistic decisions?
4. What is the nature of the author’s sentence structure?
- If they use long and multifaceted sentences, how does this impact the clarity and influence of their ideas?
- If they feature only a single idea in each sentence, what is the apparent purpose of doing so?
- Are their paragraphs generally short, focused, and self-sufficient? Or do they use half- or three quarter-page paragraphs that address many different but related ideas?
- How do these choices about sentence and paragraph structure support or impede the reading experience?
As Zinsser says, you must choose wisely when it comes to emulating other writers:
“Notice the decisions that other writers make in their choice of words and be finicky about the ones you select from the vast supply. The race in writing is not to the swift but to the original.” (p. 35)
Zinsser’s On Writing Well is a highly-praised and esteemed book on the craft of writing and for good reason.
It contains a wealth of knowledge and insight into the writing process alongside practical and easy-to-follow advice on how writers can sharpen their abilities by better attending to both the technical and stylistic elements of writing.
In this article, I’ve extracted 10 timeless lessons on writing from what I consider to be the most inspiring and instructive quotes featured in Part 1 of Zinsser’s text, Principles.
These 10 lessons are:
- Continuously rewrite your words to make them great;
- Strip every sentence to its cleanest components;
- Clear thinking produces clear writing;
- It’s your responsibility to not confuse or lose the attention of your reader;
- Write as if your reader is encountering your writing for the first time;
- Be vulnerable in your writing, and use inclusive, welcoming language that helps create relationships between you and your readers;
- Simplify, simplify, simplify;
- Actively study — don’t ignore — the foundational principles of good writing;
- Learn the meaning of words, and use your dictionary often; and
- Imitate the best writers out there
If you’re interested in reading additional books on the art and science of writing, you should consider the following texts:
- Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style;
- Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing; and
- King’s On Writing.
I have yet to read the latter two texts, but I plan to read them soon.
Thanks to Barry Knister for reminding me of the importance of Zinsser’s book.