On Writing Well made it onto my must-read list partly because of its subtitle The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. I was not disappointed by that billing. Zinsser gives clear, practical advice, practicing what he preaches. His book is easy to understand and equally easy to finish.
If I could sum up On Writing Well in one word, it would be simplify. Cut out the clutter, Zinsser advises. Use shorter words. One technique he advises it to try to cut 50% from an article. Then try to cut 10% more.
He has a way of providing a technique along with his advice. We all know writing that breathes warmth will connect better with readers. Zinsser explains how to generate some of that warmth.
Like many others who write books on the craft of writing, he makes a case for planning ahead. “What one point do you want to make in your piece?” he asks. Once that’s decided, then don’t try to do too much, just cover that one point well.
Some of his advice seems obvious. Collect more material than you need is one such tip. Maybe it’s obvious to me, since I’ve made that mistake many times. Having to go back to collect more information or to clarify a point is a waste of time and disrupts the creative flow. The extra material gives you much to choose from to get the right example or statistic. And who knows, it could come in handy for another project.
Clarity is another theme throughout the book. I truly enjoyed the section that warns against what he calls creeping nounism. Communication skills enhancement facilitation is just one of his examples of this deadly rot.
He devotes several chapters to genres within nonfiction: interviews, travel, memoir, science and technology, business writing, sports, arts and humor. While all of the sections provide valuable information, I was most interested in the travel section. He distilled into a few sentences the core of great travel writing. That is, that the writer brings out the essence of the place, and what that essence brings out of the writer.
His humor chapter taught me that good humor is really truth exposed in an unexpected way, and the writer that pokes fun at himself will have readers laughing along.
I especially appreciated his counsel on how to “stave off fear” that comes to all writers. Knowing I’m not alone in the battle against the fears that keep my fingers off the keyboard is one step in facing them.
Zinsser makes that case that above all, writers must bring enjoyment to their work and to have the confidence to trust your instincts. He points out that in our results-obsessed culture, too many writers think ahead to the published book or article, and give little thought to the actual process of writing. “The writer, his eye on the finish line, never gave enough thought to how to run the race.”(I’ll raise my hand here and confess I’ve been there. And without thinking of how to run the race, it’s tough to actually make it to the finish line.) We need to savor the process, and use that energy to refine our craft.
His final chapter “On Writing as Well as You Can” is an inspiring piece on striving to write the very best prose we can, consistently. He quotes Joe DiMaggio, who gave this answer to someone who asked how he could play so well consistently. “I always thought that there was at least one person in the stands who had never seen me play, and I didn’t want to let him down.”
Having read Zinsser’s book, I’ve learned much that will help me not let my readers down, but instead, to inform or entertain them. Isn’t that why we all write?