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On Writing Well’s Timeless Value

I’ve written a few times on how reading can help sharpen your writing—especially reading about the craft of writing. Well, turns out I was wrong. All it prompts is existential crisis. Since finishing William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well, I’ve decided I will henceforth refer to my profession as “content strategist,” instead of “writer.”

Zinsser offers aspiring writers straightforward, simple principles for non-fiction writing. Nowhere does he promise it will be easy—this is not Writing for Dummies—on the contrary, he promises writing is hard work. But his approachable and conversational tone and style make the book enjoyable, informative, and relevant for those willing to invest the necessary effort.

Though the book is easy to read, its length can make it hard to absorb and implement all its principles with a single reading. Luckily, its division into four sections (principles, methods, forms, and attitudes) make revisiting it easy. For those interested in the bare minimum, the principles and methods sections are a helpful refresher on everything we’ve forgotten since turning in our final AP English paper. Zinsser teaches with warmth and humor, giving readers permission to laugh at ourselves as we recognize our own bad habits in his examples.

In Chapter 2, “Simplicity,” Zinsser advocates for stripping sentences down to their most functional 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. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.

Zing. But the example seemingly lets us off the hook:

During the 1960s the president of my university wrote a letter to mollify the alumni after a spell of campus unrest. ‘You are probably aware,’ he began, ‘that we have been experiencing very considerable potentially explosive expressions of dissatisfaction on issues only partially related.’

Thank goodness I would never write like that!

Except I sometimes do. Instead of campus tensions, I'm likelier to be writing about recent oil market volatility and the consequent shifts in crack spreads, but Zinsser’s barb hits the mark, reminding me to consider my audience. And to edit. Always.

To those inclined to argue that such a spartan approach produces dry writing or precludes the writer’s personality from shining through—the “it’s just my style” defense—I suspect Zinsser would counter that we can’t claim to have a style until we’ve learned to write in straightforward prose first. We’re all Albert Brennaman. And so before unleashing our full quirk on our readers, we should strive to write more like Zinsser himself.

The third section, “forms,” will tempt readers to spend time on only the personally relevant chapters. I considered skipping the chapter on science and technology, for example, but I’m glad I didn’t. To the extent that much nonfiction writing requires making the complex simple, all writing is science and technology writing: “It’s the principle of leading readers who know nothing, step by step, to a grasp of subjects they didn’t think they had an aptitude for or were afraid they were too dumb to understand.” Similar nuggets throughout this section make it all worthwhile—though for those tight on time, I recommend at least chapters 15 and 16, on science and technology and business writing, respectively.

The final section, attitudes, addresses the common, intangible plagues of all writers, like finding a voice and preventing paralysis by self-doubt. Becoming a good writer requires the willingness to be vulnerable and humble—and an ability to not take oneself too darned seriously. Reading Zinsser’s genial guide reminds us that though our topic may quite literally be life and death, the responsibility of writing about it needn’t be.


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