On Writing Well by William Zinsser: selected notes

These are some of the highlights for me from Zinsser’s book. RIP.

 – But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. 

 – How can the rest of us achieve such enviable freedom from clutter? The answer is to clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English. 

– Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they don’t know. Then they must look at what they have written and ask: have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time? If it’s not, some fuzz has worked its way into the machinery.  

– Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.

– Don’t worry about whether the reader will “get it” if you indulge a sudden impulse for humor. If it amuses you in the act of writing, put it in. (It can always be taken out, but only you can put it in.) 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.

– The secret of his [Mencken’s] popularity—aside from his pyrotechnical use of the American language—was that he was writing for himself and didn’t give a damn what the reader might think. It wasn’t necessary to share his prejudices to enjoy seeing them expressed with such mirthful abandon. Mencken was never timid or evasive; he didn’t kowtow to the reader or curry anyone’s favor. It takes courage to be such a writer, but it is out of such courage that revered and influential journalists are born.  

– Also bear in mind, when you’re choosing words and stringing them together, how they sound. This may seem absurd: readers read with their eyes. But in fact they hear what they are reading far more than you realize. Therefore such matters as rhythm and alliteration are vital to every sentence.     

– As for what point you want to make, 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. So decide what single point you want to leave in the reader’s mind.   

– For the nonfiction writer, the simplest way of putting this into a rule is: when you’re ready to stop, stop. If you have presented all the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the nearest exit.  

– Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw: “a bit,” “a little,” “sort of,” “kind of,” “rather,” “quite,” “very,” “too,” “pretty much,” “in a sense” and dozens more. They dilute your style and your persuasiveness. 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.  

– If a phrase comes to you easily, look at it with deep suspicion; it’s probably one of the countless clichés that have woven their way so tightly into the fabric of travel writing that you have to make a special effort not to use them.   

– As for substance, be intensely selective. If you are describing a beach, don’t write that “the shore was scattered with rocks” or that “occasionally a seagull flew over.” Shores have a tendency to be scattered with rocks and to be flown over by seagulls. Eliminate every such fact that is a known attribute: don’t tell us that the sea had waves and the sand was white. Find details that are significant.   

– The hardest decision about any article is how to begin it. The lead must grab the reader with a provocative idea and continue with each paragraph to hold him or her in a tight grip, gradually adding information. The point of the information is to get readers so interested that they will stick around for the whole trip. The lead can be as short as one paragraph and as long as it needs to be. You’ll know it’s over when all the necessary work has been done and you can take a more relaxed tone and get on with your narrative.   

– What struck me most powerfully when I got to Timbuktu was that the streets were of sand. I suddenly realized that sand is very different from dirt. Every town starts with dirt streets that eventually get paved as the inhabitants prosper and subdue their environment. But sand represents defeat. A city with streets of sand is a city at the edge. Notice how simple those five sentences are: plain declarative sentences, not a comma in sight. Each sentence contains one thought—and only one. Readers can process only one idea at a time, and they do it in linear sequence. Much of the trouble that writers get into comes from trying to make one sentence do too much work. Never be afraid to break a long sentence into two short ones, or even three.   

– Now, what do your readers want to know next? Ask yourself that question after every sentence.   

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