May 24, 2020

On Writing Well

My takeaways from On Writing Well by William Zinsser

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

  1. Clarity
  2. Simplicity
  3. Brevity
  4. Humanity

1. Clarity

  • Clarity is the goal in writing.
  • The reader must understand exactly what you mean.
  • Read your sentences aloud to see if they are clear.

2. Simplicity

  • 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.

3. Brevity

  • 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…”

4. Humanity

  • 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.

How-To Tips

  • 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!

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