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How to write better: fresh favorite highlights from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well

I recently stumbled my highlights from William Zinsser’s classic book, On Writing Well [Amazon]. His advice is still as relevant now as it was in 1976 when first published.
I’ve already shared some highlights, but now there’s even more :).
Writing advice is like a food recipe: you should read several versions, memorize the ingredients and principles, and then let your creative mind and personal taste do the rest.
Highlights:
Nobody told all the new computer writers that the essence of writing is rewriting. Just because they’re writing fluently doesn’t mean they’re writing well.
Consider all the prepositions that are draped onto verbs that don’t need any help. We no longer head committees. We head them up. We don’t face problems anymore. We face up to them when we can free up a few minutes.
“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?”
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).
Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.
It’s amazing how often an editor can throw away the first three or four paragraphs of an article, or even the first few pages, and start with the paragraph where the writer begins to sound like himself or herself.
Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it.
Editors and readers don’t know what they want to read until they read it. Besides, they’re always looking for something new.
You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for.
Master the small gradations between words that seem to be synonyms. What’s the difference between “cajole,” “wheedle,” “blandish” and “coax”?
“the pen must at length comply with the tongue,” as Samuel Johnson said, and that today’s spoken garbage may be tomorrow’s written gold.
Another choice is unity of mood. You might want to talk to the reader in the casual voice that The New Yorker has strenuously refined.
every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before. Not two thoughts, or five—just one.
Trust your material if it’s taking you into terrain you didn’t intend to enter but where the vibrations are good.
The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead.
One moral of this story is that you should always collect more material than you will use. Every article is strong in proportion to the surplus of details from which you can choose the few that will serve you best…
The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right.
Something I often do in my writing is to bring the story full circle—to strike at the end an echo of a note that was sounded at the beginning.
Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.
Among good writers it is the short sentence that predominates, and don’t tell me about Norman Mailer—he’s a genius.
Humor is best achieved by understatement, and there’s nothing subtle about an exclamation point.
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.
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.
Most rewriting consists of reshaping and tightening and refining the raw material you wrote on your first try. Much of it consists of making sure you’ve given the reader a narrative flow he can follow with no trouble from beginning to end.
The longer I work at the craft of writing, the more I realize that there’s nothing more interesting than the truth.
I’m not saying that fiction is dead. Obviously the novelist can take us into places where no other writer can go: into the deep emotions and the interior life.
When you use a quotation, start the sentence with it. Don’t lead up to it with a vapid phrase saying what the man said. BAD: Mr. Smith said that he liked to “go downtown once a week and have lunch with some of my old friends.”
Finally, don’t strain to find synonyms for “he said.” Don’t make your man assert, aver and expostulate just to avoid repeating “he said,” and please—please!—don’t write “he smiled” or “he grinned.” I’ve never heard anybody smile.
Memoir is the art of inventing the truth.
A tenet of journalism is that “the reader knows nothing.” As tenets go, it’s not flattering, but a technical writer can never forget it.
The ego of the modern athlete has in turn rubbed off on the modern sportswriter. I’m struck by how many sportswriters now think they are the story, their thoughts more interesting than the game they were sent to cover.
It’s necessary, in short, to be a critic—which, at some point in his or her career, almost every writer wants to be.
We like good critics as much for their personality as for their opinions.
How should a good piece of criticism start? You must make an immediate effort to orient your readers to the special world they are about to enter.
The most boring sentence in the daily newspaper is the last sentence of the editorial, which says “It is too early to tell whether the new policy will work” or “The effectiveness of the decision remains to be seen.”
Writing that will endure tends to consist of words that are short and strong; words that sedate are words of three, four and five syllables, mostly of Latin origin, many of them ending in “ion” and embodying a vague concept.
Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That’s almost the whole point of becoming a writer.
any time you can tell a story in the form of a quest or a pilgrimage you’ll be ahead of the game.
Readers should always feel that you know more about your subject than you’ve put in writing.
When you get such a message from your material—when your story tells you it’s over, regardless of what subsequently happened—look for the door.
Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is to come to terms with your life narrative. Another is to work through some of life’s hardest knocks—loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

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