On Writing Well Summary

William Zinsser

On Writing Well

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On Writing Well Summary

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American author William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (1976), is a popular writing manual for high school and college students. Zinsser, who died in 2015, was a longtime features writer for the New York Herald Tribune and other popular publications. The range of articles he wrote during his life provided him with the expertise to offer advice on a range of nonfiction forms in his classic, On Writing Well. Zinsser also taught writing at Yale and Columbia, and he often references his teaching experience to illustrate certain of his observations on writing.

Zinsser’s overarching advice for writers in On Writing Well is to be economical in their writing, to be honest with themselves, and to be courteous to their audience by writing pieces that have a lot of thought behind them.

On Writing Well is divided into four parts: principles, methods, forms, and attitudes. Throughout the book, Zinsser considers how good writing can memorably portray phenomena in medicine, business, education, sports, the arts, technology, and history.

The first part, “Principles,” considers the basic tenets of writing that Zinsser believes will benefit anyone’s written work. He often introduces these with personal anecdotes from writing conferences, experiences with students, or paragraphs he has recently read in the paper. In chapter two, “Simplicity,” Zinsser dissects the verbose letter from a college president in the 1960s, who was asking his students to be less disruptive with their protests. Zinsser compares the wordy original to a cleaner, more honest version of his own making. “Clutter is the disease of American writing,” he writes.

He looks into the “deep psychological roots” of style in chapter four, also titled “Style;” he concludes that one shouldn’t try to sound “fancy” and to use big words when unnatural, as that will only kill one’s inherent style.

In part two, “Methods,” Zinsser discusses rewriting the beginning of an essay to match the ending (“Unity); writing the first few lines of a news article with something that personally surprised you (“The Lead and the Ending); and specific tweaks that can improve any article, such as using active and unique verbs (“Bits & Pieces).

The longest section of the book is part three, “Forms.” Zinsser offers specific suggestions, thoughts, and questions to consider when one is working in a particular genre or form, such as travel writing, memoir, science, business, sports, the arts, and humor.

He encourages people not to be snobby about nonfiction, or to think of it as inferior to fiction writing; he exhorts everyone to treat nonfiction with the same attention normally given to fiction.

With interviews, he encourages the journalist to ask the right questions, questions that draw out dramatic statements, rather than surrounding neutral quotes with jaw-dropping commentary.

In writing about oneself, Zinsser encourages people to write only for themselves—not for publication, or for money, or to impress people; one tends to generate the best material when they are honest with their thoughts.

With science writing, Zinsser shows that the most complicated scientific subjects can be explained elegantly, especially when one avoids jargon.

In a business context, Zinsser encourages workers to find a balance between being personable and being professional. Zinsser shows that many business people, in the hope of appearing professional and being taken seriously, sound off-putting, unfriendly, and ultimately, not someone anyone would choose to do business with.

For sports writing, Zinsser recommends going beyond reporting the stats of a game, and try hanging out with longtime fans to understand the overarching stories that take place within any high-drama field such as baseball, football, and tennis.

For coverage of the arts, Zinsser encourages students not to be intimidated by their impressions of an artwork, but also to only declaim a judgment once they have absorbed as much information about the artist and the work as possible.

For strong humor writing, Zinsser gives the examples of Woody Allen and John Updike.

In the final part of the book, “Attitudes,” Zinsser explores common problems that can affect any writer and stall their work. He offers exercises that help find and bolster one’s unique writing voice. He encourages writers to acknowledge when they are fearful of judgment, and looks at ways to turn that fear into something motivating. He adumbrates the meaning of confidence and enjoyment with writing.

After 2006, Zinsser added a section called “Writing Family History and Memoir.” It is the penultimate chapter in most editions of On Writing Well, and it was inspired by Zinsser’s decade plus experience of teaching memoir and family writing to students at the New School in Manhattan. Zinsser tells students to, “Be yourself and your readers will follow you anywhere.” He discusses how writing about one’s family or one’s own development can be an act of healing and forgiveness.

In the last chapter, “Write as Well as You Can,” Zinsser discusses the true meaning of “writing well.” Ultimately, it is about imposing high standards on yourself. It requires self-confidence, risk-taking, and the courage to stand out from the crowd. “You will write only as well as you make yourself write,” Zinsser concludes. He notes that no number of lessons will necessarily improve one’s ability to write. To improve their writing, an individual must want to improve.