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Book Summary — On Writing Well

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1 paragraph summary:

It does what it says on the cover — On Writing Well. A classic dedicated to describe how to write better. Easy read that supports all its points with examples.

Intro

It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.

Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English.

Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they don’t know.

Practice

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

The point is that clear writing is the result of a lot of tinkering.

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.

Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.

Effortless Style

In fact, the opposite is true: the effortless style is achieved by strenuous effort and constant refining. The nails of grammar and syntax are in place and the English is as good as the writer can make it.

But the most pathetic thing about the breezy style is that it’s harder to read than good English. In the writer’s attempt to ease the reader’s journey he has littered the path with obstacles: cheap slang, shoddy sentences, windy philosophizing.

Write with respect for the English language at its best — and for readers at their best. If you’re smitten by the urge to try the breezy style, read what you’ve written aloud and see if you like the sound of your voice.

Audience

“Who am I writing for?” It’s a fundamental question, and it has a fundamental answer: You are writing for yourself.

But on the question of who you’re writing for, don’t be eager to please. If you consciously write for a teacher or for an editor, you’ll end up not writing for anybody. If you write for yourself, you’ll reach the people you want to write for.

Clean up your writing

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.

But the 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.

Verbs — Simplify and Keep Active

  • “Up” in “free up” shouldn’t be there. Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose.
  • “Experiencing” is one of the worst clutterers. Even your dentist will ask if you are experiencing any pain. If he had his own kid in the chair he would say, “Does it hurt?” He would, in short, be himself. By using a more pompous phrase in his professional role he not only sounds more important; he blunts the painful edge of truth.
  • Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb. The difference between an activeverb style and a passive-verb style — in clarity and vigor — is the difference between life and death for a writer. “Joe saw him” is strong. “He was seen by Joe” is weak. The first is short and precise; it leaves no doubt about who did what. The second is necessarily longer and it has an insipid quality: something was done by somebody to someone else.
  • Don’t say that the president of the company stepped down. Did he resign? Did he retire? Did he get fired? Be precise. Use precise verbs.

Adjectives —Cut or Shorten

  • Take the adjective “personal,” as in “a personal friend of mine,” “his personal feeling” or “her personal physician.”
  • 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.

Adverbs — Simplify

  • Most adverbs are unnecessary. You will clutter your sentence and annoy the reader if you choose a verb that has a specific meaning and then add an adverb that carries the same meaning.

Continuity of Sentence

  • Unity is the anchor of good writing. So, first, get your unities straight. Unity not only keeps the reader from straggling off in all directions; it satisfies your readers’ subconscious need for order and reassures them that all is well at the helm.
  • Don’t inflate what needs no inflating: “with the possible exception of” (except), “due to the fact that” (because), “he totally lacked the ability to” (he couldn’t), “until such time as” (until), “for the purpose of” (for).
  • Don’t use exclamation points unless you must to achieve a certain effect. It has a gushy aura, the breathless excitement of a debutante commenting on an event that was exciting only to her.
  • Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with “but.” If that’s what you learned, unlearn it — there’s no stronger word at the start. Other strong words — “yet,” “however,” “nevertheless,” “still,” “instead,” “thus,” “therefore,” “meanwhile,” “now,” “later,” “today,” “subsequently”

Keep it Simple

  • There is no minimum length for a sentence that’s acceptable in the eyes of God.
  • Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it.
  • Keep your paragraphs short. Writing is visual — it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain.
  • Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, whereas a long chunk of type can discourage a reader from even starting to read.
  • Paragraphing is a subtle but important element in writing nonfiction articles and books — a road map constantly telling your reader how you have organized your ideas. Study good nonfiction writers to see how they do it. You’ll find that almost all of them think in paragraph units, not in sentence units. Each paragraph has its own integrity of content and structure.
  • As for substance, be intensely selective. If you are describing a beach, don’t write that “the shore was scattered with rocks” or that “occasionally a seagull flew over.”
  • Eliminate every such fact that is a known attribute: don’t tell us that the sea had waves and the sand was white. Find details that are significant. They may be important to your narrative; they may be unusual, or colorful, or comic, or entertaining. But make sure they do useful work.
  • Know what to omit. Clichés, for instance. If a writer lives in blissful ignorance that clichés are the kiss of death, if in the final analysis he leaves no stone unturned to use them, we can infer that he lacks an instinct for what gives language its freshness.
  • Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw: “a bit,” “a little,” “sort of,” “kind of,” “rather,” “quite,” “very,” “too,” “pretty much,” “in a sense” and dozens more. They dilute your style and your persuasiveness.

Don’t Exaggerate

  • What is “journalese”? It’s a quilt of instant words patched together out of other parts of speech. 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.
  • 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.
  • Don’t describe an event as rather spectacular or very awesome. Words like “spectacular” and “awesome” don’t submit to measurement. “Very” is a useful word to achieve emphasis, but far more often it’s clutter. There’s no need to call someone very methodical. Either he is methodical or he isn’t.

Be Confident

  • Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident. Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of the reader’s trust. Readers want a writer who believes in himself and in what he is saying. Don’t diminish that belief. Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.

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Goal: Read and summarise one book a week

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Michael Batko

Michael Batko

Learning Enthusiast

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