On Writing Well

I just finished reading the book On Writing Well by William Zinsser. As the title hints this book is a guide to writing nonfiction. This book is NOT a how-to write recipe book, rather one on fundamentals and principles. William structures his work into four sections through which he addresses the craft of writing.

The first section is one on principles (The Transaction, Simplicity, Clutter, Style, The Audience, Words and Usage). These principles according to the author can be learned through experience, but require effort as writing is hard. The call of this section is one for uttermost simplicity and clarity.

The second section is on methods (Unity, The Lead and the Ending, and Bits & Pieces). Theses methods address the structure of one’s written piece, the importance of flow, and consistency. In addition, the fundamental concept of rewriting – being the essence of writing well – is also discussed.

The third section discusses the different forms of writing (Nonfiction as Literature, The Interview, The Travel Article, The Memoir, Science and Technology, Business Writing, Sports, Writing About the Arts, and Humor). This section focuses on the nuances of each of the mentioned forms, and the associated considerations. I found the section on business writing particularly interesting and applicable.

Finally the fourth and last section is on attitudes (The Sound of Your Voice, Enjoyment, Fear and Confidence, The Tyranny of the Final Product, A Writer’s Decision, Write as Well as You Can). In this section the author exposes the human side of writing with all the emotions, hardships and successes that come with it. He aims to instill confidence into writers and promotes them to trust their instinct and take action.

Overall, a very insightful book on the topic of writing non-fiction. What I particularly enjoyed is the plethora of examples and excerpts through which the author presented the concepts. This made the book very practical. On the critical side, given the breadth inherent in such a topic (writing), the book did not have a lot of depth in the areas presented.

Below are some excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1-On email: “Just because they are writing with ease and enjoyment doesn’t mean they are writing well.”

2-On interviewing people: “Writing is a public trust…When you get people talking, handle what they say as you would handle a valuable gift.”

3-“The best gift you have to offer when you write personal history is the gift of yourself. Give yourself permission to write about yourself, and have a good time doing it.”

4-On writing class: “In short, our class began by striving first for humor and hoping to wing a few truths along the way. We ended by striving for truth and hoping to add humor along the way. Ultimately we realized that the two are intertwined.”

5-“Writing is related to character. If your values are sound, your writing will be sound. It all begins with your intention.”

6-“If you like to write better than everybody else, you have to want to write better than everybody else. You must take pride in the smallest details of your craft. And you must be willing to defend what you’ve written against the various middlemen – editors, agents and publishers – whose sights may be different from yours, whose standards not as high.”

7-On attitude: “A reporter once asked him (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 had never seen me play, and I didn’t want to let him down.”

Regards,

Omar Halabieh

On Writing Well

On Writing Well

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2 comments

  1. I think you did a great job on summarizing the book. I noticed that you mentioned that this book lacked practical examples. A great book with a similiar topic that you might be looking for is called Professional Writing by Sky Marsen.

    1. Thank you for your recommendation. I have ordered a copy of this book and look forward to reading and reviewing it in the near future.

      Regards,
      Omar

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