Book Review: “On Writing Well”
Go to any bookstore — whether bricks and mortar or click-and-order — and you will, in the quest for a book about how to write, be subjected to a bewildering array of possibilities. Your budgets (financial and chronological) limit you to one volume, because you want to actually, you know, start writing in this lifetime, not after an interminable period poring through numerous guides. So you decide to consult the sage: Hmm, you wonder, what’s the one desert-island book DailyWritingTips recommends?
Answer: William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.
If you’re searching for a motivational manifesto and how-to manual in one, this is it. Zinsser, a veteran writer and writing teacher with numerous books and magazine articles to his credit, lays it out straight in a refreshingly no-nonsense tone.
In the first part of the book, which covers principles such as simplicity and conciseness, as well as style, usage, and vocabulary, Zinsser reproduces two manuscript pages showing how he revises and pares down his work. He emphasizes the necessity of repeatedly, mercilessly honing one’s prose and makes candid comments like, “Few people realize how badly they write.” Think of On Writing Well as a virtual boot camp for writers (though Zinsser refrains from hoarsely shouted verbal abuse).
Another example: When exhorting readers to refrain from affecting a writing style, he compares the affectation to wearing a toupee: “The problem is not that [the wearer] doesn’t look well groomed; he does, and we can only admire the wigmaker’s skill. The point is that he doesn’t look like himself.”
Another section deals with consistency of technique in such areas as perspective (first person, or third person?), tense (past tense, or present tense?), and mood (casual, or formal?), with the importance of strong introductions and conclusions, and a hodgepodge of mini-lectures on a wide array of topics from parts of speech to subject matter.
The third — and thickest — portion discusses the legitimacy of nonfiction as a literary form before delving in to guidance about how to craft interviews, travel articles, memoirs, scientific and technical writing, business writing, sports writing, criticism, and humor.
Finally, Zinsser explores voice as well as the hard work of writing, with an extended diagnostic passage about the evolution of a travel article he wrote.
Looking back on this post, I note how unadorned it seems — a simple, straightforward summary of an excellent resource for beginning and veteran writers alike. But I have the feeling Zinsser would approve.
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8 Responses to “Book Review: “On Writing Well””
Stephen R. Diamond
“Another example: When exhorting readers to refrain from affecting a writing style, he compares the affectation to wearing a toupee: ‘The problem is not that [the wearer] doesn’t look well groomed; he does, and we can only admire the wigmaker’s skill. The point is that he doesn’t look like himself.'”
But then, isn’t following advice on writing style tantamount to affecting one—such as the advice to write short sentences? (Did Hemingway and Faulkner have their own writing styles, inherent to them, or did they, at some point, choose a style, which I think is the same thing as affecting it?) Style as result of choice seems, perhaps, commonsensical, but at least one piece of evidence suggests it’s more personally inherent: professional writers are remarkably consistent in average sentence length. (See Johnson’s “Literary Style by the Numbers” at http://tinyurl.com/3x32yw)
I think part of the problem with some of the advice about writing for the Web is that following it makes you sound like “a blogger,” not like yourself.
I read the book and always go back to it. A great reference.
I love this: “whether bricks and mortar or click-and-order.” Very clever.
Mark, I have carried Zissners book, “On Writing Well”, with me as a kind of Bible. I have read it, and re-read it, several times. It has been immensely valuable. With a different context, Brenda Euland’s “If You Want To Write,” is so good, and gets to the heart of a writer’s soul. Both seem to me equally worthy. Thanks, Mark, for your review. Keep up the good work.
I wish you were right about this book. I will try to get it and let you know. In the mean time, thanks for your daily writing tips that are informative and valuable.
I totally agree with you on this book—it’s and excellent read. Now if only they had an E-book version . . . 🙂
I do enjoy your reviews. I may give this book a read. 🙂
I agree wholeheartedly. I chanced upon Zinsser amidst the ‘bewildering array of possibilities’ and was very pleased with my find.
On the other hand I am thoroughly enjoying your daily writing tips: always interesting, whether directly useful to me or not. Thank you.
Don’t go anywhere soon.