I’ve been writing often on this site lately, so I decided to listen to the audio version of On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser. The book was highly recommended by Derek Sivers. More than a collection of grammatical rules and techniques, On Writing Well is a common sense guide on how to keep your writing concise and engaging. Here are the passages and concepts that resonated with me:
Writing: Art or Craft?
- Writing is a craft, like carpentry or plumbing. As any craft, it has its tools. The tools of writing are words.
- Re-Writing is more important than writing. Writing never comes out right the first time around.
The Principles of Good Writing
- Clarity is the goal in writing.
- The reader must understand exactly what you mean.
- Read your sentences aloud to see if they are clear.
- Remove clutter from your writing.
- Rid your writing of any pretentiousness, pomposity and fat.
- Use simple words: don’t use “assistance” when you can say “help”. Don’t use “I’m congnizant of” when you can say “I know”.
- Writing is hard: easy writing makes hard reading.
- Short is better than long: short sentences are better than long sentences.
- Cut your writing by 50%!
- Things you can cut:
- Adverbs (loudly, thoroughly, etc.). Most of the time, the verb is enough.
- Most adjectives.
- Qualifiers: “sort of”, “a little bit”, etc.
- Anouncing what you’re about to say: “As you probably may have noticed…”
- Write the way you talk. If you don’t speak a certain way, don’t write it that way.
- Sound like a person.
- You are writing for YOU.
- You don’t need to be an expert about a subject. You just need to be interested.
- Your style is your personality in writing.
- Don’t try to be ornate or pretentious.
- All writers are driven by ego.
- Self-esteem is important: write about what YOU want.
- If you want to write compelling stories, you need self-esteem.
- Who are you writing for? You!
- Your writing is the gift of who you are.
- Many times you won’t feel like writing, so you need strong discipline and work habits.
- The reader has to believe that the writer is feeling good.
- You learn to write by writing.
- There is no right or wrong way to write: some write a full text and then review. Others write one paragraph and re-writes it often before moving to the next.
- There is no right or wrong time to write but you need to establish a routine for writing and stick to it.
- Re-writing will give you pleasure.
- Writing is visual. Good writing catches the eye before it catches the brain.
- Use plain words that you can relate to.
- Use active verbs: active verbs give momentum to a sentence and helps you picture who did what.
- One-syllable active verbs are the best.
- Eliminate passive verbs: they remove the person from the sentence, and force you to come up with a passive noun.
- Use short, simple nouns that we all know.
- Bad nouns are usually of latin origin: orientation, implementation, etc. (too long and sound pretentious).
- If you are not an expert on a subject just show sincerity.
- To write good English you have to read good English.
- Find role-models and imitate them.
- Write with your “ear”: rhythm, cadence, musicality are very important. Read your sentences aloud to see if they sound write.
- If a sentence doesn’t “sound” right, re-write it.
- Make sure that your sentences are well connected, otherwise you will lose your reader.
Information and Narrative
- There is nothing more interesting (and effective) than the truth.
- Don’t try to explain what is already clear.
- Sincerity is your most important credential.
- Narratives: everybody loves stories. Tell a story.
- Make ample use of quotes. Quotes are the best way to convey what people think, say or feel.
- Quotes make your writing credible and interesting.
- Learn the skill of interviewing.
- Interview with pen and paper, not a recording device.
- Alternate quotes with your writing.
- A good interviewer has to generate trust.
- Be true to yourself!