On Writing Well, which grew out of a course that William Zinsser taught at Yale, has been praised for its sound advice, its clarity, and for the warmth of its style. It is a book for anybody who wants to learn how to write or who needs to do some writing to get through the day, as almost everybody does. Whether you want to write about people or places, science and technology, business, sports, the arts, or about yourself in the increasingly popular memoir genre, On Writing Well offers you both fundamental principles as well as the insights of a distinguished practitioner. With over a million copies in print, this volume has stood the test of time and remains a valued resource for writers and would-be writers.
If you write (and you do) you should read this book.
In the first few chapters Mr. Zinsser sounds like an old fashioned 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.
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.
"The trick is to study writers who have it (taste). Never hesitate to imitate another writer."
The author painstakingly takes us through the principles of writing, methods and an overview of the various forms, culminating in a discussion of writing attitudes.
Zinsser believes that "most nonfiction writers will do well to cling to cling to the ropes of simplicity and clarity". He has done exactly that in this instructive manual on writing well.
I first read On Writing Well as a college student 26 years ago, and because I was a photojournalism major, I remember being impressed by what amounted to my first "writer's book."
Zinsser knows how to craft a sentence and make a point, and the overall impression is one of being taught by a patient, gray-haired professor.
On Writing Well is aimed squarely at non-fiction writers (not surprising given Zinsser's newspaper background), and I'd suggest it's still an ideal primer for new writers.
Initially published in 1976, On Writing Well was reissued in a 2006 "30th Anniversary Edition" which included a new section on writing memoirs.
Overall, this book has aged fairly well (good writing is still good writing), though writers nowadays are facing new challenges, and you won't find answers to those issues here. Those looking for step-by-step guides to getting published won't find what they want here.
Instead, Zinsser has written a nice, patient, intelligent book about writing better. It's a classic and for good reason, though it is starting to show some wear around the edges.
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.
At some point in their lives, most people will write something. 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.