On writing well : the classic guide to writing nonfiction

by William Zinsser

Paperback, 2006




New York : HarperCollins, c2006.


Warns against common errors in structure, style, and diction, and explains the fundamentals of conducting interviews and writing travel, scientific, sports, critical, and humorous articles.

Media reviews

Library Journal
Not since "The Elements of Style" has there been a guide to writing as well presented and readable as this one. A love and respect for the language is evident on every page.
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New York Times
"On Writing Well" is a bible for a generation of writers looking for clues to clean, compelling prose.

User reviews

LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
I've read some guides about how to write well, and they've always had such terrible advice and used such awful, vulgar examples (usually taken from their own genre fiction) that I had abandoned all hope. Ostensibly, Zinsser's book is about writing nonfiction, but it works well for every kind of
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writing, and is the best guide to writing I have ever read.
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LibraryThing member tgraettinger
Excellent book on writing and thinking about writing. Zinsser covers a wide breadth of topics, from writing memoirs, to writing about travel, to writing about sports, and more. He makes it very simple - write about people doing things, and write more like you speak than less. Good chapter on
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organizing a longer work as well.
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LibraryThing member wahmreader
My job requires me to be able to write well, and this book really helped me to hone my writing skills. Zinsser's advice and techniques are concrete and specific, and after applying his suggestions and theories to my own work, I improved my style tremendously.
LibraryThing member tyroeternal
On Writing Well is a simple guide for writing well. Thankfully, as a book about writing should be, it is written well. I found the advice to be accessible and ready to be applied.

If you write (and you do) you should read this book.
LibraryThing member jcopenha
The best book on writing I've ever read. This book lightly touches on grammar, only to get it out of the way, and then is on to the act of writing. He focuses on the thought process of writing, what to write about, how to write about different subjects, and most importantly how to rewrite what
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you've just written. Everybody that writes, anything, should read the first section, titled "Principles". Those first fifty pages apply to all forms of writing and will serve you well. William Zinsser wrote in such an engaging style that I'll be adding at least two more of his books to my reading list. And because he talked about it so fondly I might even reread Walden, but that's a long shot.
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LibraryThing member RosesAreRed
I was forced to purchase this book for a course I took, but I didn't sell it back. It was amusing and very informative.
LibraryThing member bdayne
Hands down, the best book I've ever read on the craft of writing non-fiction. A book I've owned for fifteen years, I still return to it; still find new things to learn from it. It never fails to inform and inspire.
LibraryThing member DanDanRevolution
Zinsser is a patronizing fellow with sub-par organizational skills, but one with a point: writing well is applying common sense to structured communication. Some of the chapters are a little insulting, weaving freely to and from ironic hypocrisy, but well-chosen excerpts swoop in to save the day. A
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mixed bag, mostly good.
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LibraryThing member pw0327
I stumbled upon this book as I was looking for a guide to writing essays. It looked interesting and the first few pages read well, so I bought it. Little did I know that this book would change my world view on writing and learning.
In the first few chapters Mr. Zinsser sounds like an old fashioned
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English teacher, harping on the fundamentals and simplicity. The fact that he is right made the message easier to absorb. In the latter chapters he focuses on different kinds of writing, that is when he hooked me. Even if you never write a memoir, it is fascinating for me to read about how people go about writing one. Now I am writing my own, for my own consumption, because the process sounds like something that is enlightening and worth doing. The same is true for his chapers on art critique, sports, humor, etc.

I have also gained a massive reading list from Mr. Zinsser, now I am curious to a whole new world that I was not aware of and more importantly, I did not care about. But he made me interested in these books because he made me curious about how these authors are able to communicate their message so clearly.
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LibraryThing member Fiddleback_
The difficulty with all books such as this is the necessity to already know a bit about writing in order to understand what the author is getting at. If it happens that you know a fair bit about it already, the book is largely useless to you until you get to the bits you aren’t aware of yet. So,
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the value of the book varies depending on what you already know. For me, this book was about one third useful. Mostly I was using it to brush up on my script writing chops.
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LibraryThing member kathleenmcgowan
Zinsser has produced an inspiring and practical manual in On Writing Well. My AP English teacher in high school recommended this book to me as a reference when I went to her asking how best to improve my own writing——obviously, I aspired to publish. I particularly enjoy Zinsser's thoughts on
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modern memoirs.
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LibraryThing member muddy21
I read a dated edition (there have been several revised editions since then) but it was an excellent read. Reinforced a lot of what I already do and gave me some ideas about things to try differently. Sounded a lot like what I remember from high school writing classes. I'd like to see the newest
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edition to see how things might have changed.
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LibraryThing member IAmChrysanthemum
As I read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, I repeatedly thought of Ratatouille, an animated film from Pixar Studios. True, it’s a tenuous connection between the two works. Zinsser’s book was published more than three decades prior to the theatrical release of Ratatouille. And Zinnser’s
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intended audience (even though he argues in his book that a writer should never write for an intended audience) was likely professional adults whereas the animators of Ratatouille sought only to amuse children and childlike adults. But Zinsser’s book and the film argue for the same thing: anyone can master a craft. In Ratatouille, this theme is presented more whimsically; a rat becomes a world-class Parisian cook by following the credo “Anyone can cook!” Being a rat, he’s naturally disadvantaged in the kitchen, but with hard work, confidence, and, most importantly, an appreciation for delicious food, he manages to overcome his deficits and become a five-star chef. Zinsser is essentially supporting the same idea. Based on what he says in On Writing Well, anyone can write! Whether you’re a physicist more comfortable with quantum theory than punctuation rules or a relatively accomplished writer only occasionally struck by doubts, you will benefit from hearing these comforting words. In fact, Zinsser’s book is less of a writing manual and more of a psychiatric guide for the aspiring writer.

If you approach On Writing Well as a panacea for all your technical writing woes, a salve for your misplaced commas, a remedy for your verbosity, then you’re sure to be disappointed. As Zinsser repeatedly demonstrates—both through personal example and sage advice—success in writing comes from positive psychological habits. Anyone can write, because all anyone must do is develop confidence, approach the world as an interested and interesting citizen, and discover his or her ever elusive “self” and record it in words. As a result, the message of On Writing Well is scary yet liberating. There are no quick solutions here, but if you’re courageous enough to try, you can become a writer.
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LibraryThing member marck
Zinsser's writing is concise, clear, and entertaining -- which is a good thing, because those qualities are exactly what this book preaches. Through numerous examples from published (and unpublished) writings by Zinsser and others, he analyzes and demonstrates all the basic dos and don'ts of
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nonfiction writing. It's more than just basics; it's feel and muse and common sense too. The fact that this book has been in print so many years and updated so many times shows how timeless it is. Walk -- don't run -- through this book.
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LibraryThing member booktsunami
Zinsser first published this book in 1976 and this version is the seventh edition. Not a bad run and he's had to update it to cope with word processors and computers. I've just recommended it to my son. In fact, I bought it in the quiet hope that he might read it and gain some inspiration.....but
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no luck there. As one might hope, it is well written and rather easy to read. Short chapters ...active not passive voice. Some really good hints about interviewing people and for including dialogue into your writing. It is shamelessly directed towards non fiction writers and it is clear that Zinsser has done a decent apprenticeship as a writer. He comes across as viewing writing as a job more than as an inspiration. But I would not hesitate to recommend this to anyone who is keen to improve their writing ...I love some of his "throw-away"lines (though as he points out they are probably very carefully thought through)... eg. "Leave 'myriad' and their ilk to the poets. Leave 'ilk' to anyone who will take it away".
A seriously useful reference book. I give it five stars.
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LibraryThing member KirkLowery
It's important to realize that this book focuses upon journalistic non-fiction writing: tightly focused articles on just about every subject. You will not learn about fiction writing here. On the other hand, for non-fiction in general, this is one of the best books there is on the topic. He writes
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the book in the style and using the principles that he advocates. It's far more readable than Strunk & White, and deals with various genres: travel, memoir, science, et alia. Perhaps the most unique feature of the book is how he reveals what being a professional writer is all about emotionally, even spiritually. What kind of life must a person lead to be a good writer? How does one deal with editors? There are also chapters on the classic topics of writing: grammar, usage and punctuation. Even these often soporific topics are handled in a lively way. If you write non-fiction -- especially if you write in an academic environment, this book is a gem.
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LibraryThing member zette
Zinsser's classic handbook for writing non-fiction covers everything a would-be writer needs to start writing articles. The sections on editing and re-writing are eye opening.
LibraryThing member kslade
Great book on writing. Really good advice.
LibraryThing member tangentrider
Inspires the craft of and passion for writing. This will go on my reread list.
LibraryThing member planetshannon
Although there is a lot of great information within the book, I found myself sighing over the 'pronoun' issue and multiple references to he (as if I am he, or whom I would be interviewing as he). Even though this particular issue is discussed in the book and that it has been revised over time to be
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more inclusive or vague, I found that it pulled me out the experience of reading the book.
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LibraryThing member Noah_Schumacher
Zissner provides a simple and thought provoking primer for writers. Though he may not provide concrete "how-to's"--as though writing were that simple--he nonetheless gives amazing encouragement for novices just beginning their trek. I have given it a 5 star rating simply for its simplicity and its
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accessibility. From writing manuscripts to monographs, sermons to stories, or even poetic prose; the book proves to be invaluable.
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LibraryThing member ptferris96
This, along with The Elements of Style, was my summer reading for my AP English Language and Comp class. Personally, I liked this book better. We were assigned to write reviews for both of them, so here is mine for On Writing Well:

At some point in their lives, most people will write something.
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Whether it is in their business, as a journalist, an author, or writing a memoir or family history, writing is present everywhere. It is an important part of society. Unfortunately, almost everyone finds it to be a difficult task that requires much practice, determination, and patience. The purpose of On Writing Well is to provide assistance to writers and help improve their craft.
Since its publication thirty-six years ago, On Writing Well has become a popular book among aspiring writers of nonfiction. Written by William Zinsser, a former journalist for The New York Herald Tribune, professor at Yale, and a freelance writer, it was his attempt to put the curriculum of his nonfiction course into a book. He also wrote it with the intention of being a complement to The Elements of Style, the go-to manual of writers. It has received much praise and has become known as one of the most important books on writing.
The book contains twenty-five chapters divided into four parts. Each part covers an important topic of writing: principles, methods, forms, and attitudes. The chapters in Principles cover the basics of writing, such as writing style, word usage, and preventing clutter. Methods expands upon the topics covered in Principles by providing a guide on how to keep your writing together, as well as tidbits of how grammatical terms should be used. In Forms, each chapter covers a different type of nonfiction writing, including interviews, travel articles, business writing, sports, and humor. Attitudes concludes the volume by discussing writing voice, decisions, and emotions that writers experience.
Zinsser uses a wide variety of nonfiction works as examples throughout his book. An excerpt from E.B. White’s “The Hen (An Appreciation)” is used to demonstrate how each author should write for himself and use words they would use in conversation. Part of Joan Didion’s article “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” is used to provide an example of how a travel article should be written, with all of the details doing useful work.
Works written by Zinsser and his experiences as a professor are often used as reference points. One of my favorite examples in the book was the story of his Audubon article on Roger Tory Peterson, a legendary birdwatcher. He describes how he was requested to write the article and initially refused because it was a subject with which he was unfamiliar. After watching a documentary on Peterson, he was inspired to take up the project. In the process, he learned Peterson was a very interesting man. An artist as well as an ornithologist, Peterson’s artistic skill led him to be discovered by millions across America. The main advice given by the author in this story was to think broadly about each assignment. I thought that not only was it an interesting and well written story, but it was also a good way to convey the message.
One of the greatest advantages of On Writing Well is that it is surprisingly readable at some points. Although it is definitely not the ideal page-turner, it isn’t dreadfully boring either. The lackluster parts of the book are made up for by the excellent tidbits of advice as well as an enticing writing style that is commanding and concise but not harsh. One major annoyance I had with the book was the rather long middle section. The chapters provide guides for many different types of writers, but it was rather irritating to have to read through so many examples of writing and not much actual advice. I also think it would be difficult for most students below college level to read this volume. In addition, many of the pop culture references Zinsser uses did not make sense to me. I think that the book would be more helpful to a younger audience if a newer edition was published with updated references for the current generation. The book was very helpful overall though; I used it quite a bit as reference for writing this very review. I would recommend On Writing Well for anyone who does any sort of writing in their life, but more towards more experienced writers than those starting on the writing journey.
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LibraryThing member Davidgnp
I came late to this classic and I'm glad I caught up with it eventually. It's one of those rare books that starts well and gets better. Particularly so as Zinsser's warmth and enthusiasm emerge through his writing - this is a key learning point as well as a pleasure for the reader. Some fine
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examples too, not least from Zinsser's own work. His analysis of an article about his trip to watch the arrival of a salt caravan is both instructive and joyful.
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LibraryThing member kosmos21

And essential book for learning how to write, how to appreciate (the act of) writing and the written word - clean and clear prose, and that which is not; and how to do both with intelligence and relaxed compassion.
LibraryThing member kaulsu
I am so glad I read this! I wish I could have shared bits and pieces--or even whole chapters--with writers I know. It is a book to be read once--and then read again--and again. At some point I will probably read another of his advice books.



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