I’ve had the book On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser on my shelf since my pre-law school journalism days. That is, I’ve had it on my shelf for a while. I don’t remember who gave it to me, but I do remember how it made me feel.
It made me feel like I could be a better writer.
7 Inspiring Writing Tips From On Writing Well
Reviewing the book again, I remember why I liked it. It’s (unsurprisingly) written well and is full of useful tips. I’m through re-reading “Part I: Principles” and I can’t not share its best tips:
1. The heart of good non-fiction writing is the “personal transaction.”
The personal transaction is the connection you make with the reader. The best ones occur when your enthusiasm, your history with a subject matter, or your connection to the topic comes through in your writing. Ultimately, Zinsser writes, the product that you must sell is not the subject you’re writing about, but who you are.
2. Simplicity is king.
Zinsser says it best:
“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.”
3. Simplicity is hard.
Clarity is essential to any nonfiction writing, but Zinsser doesn’t pretend like it’s easy. It takes revision after revision after revision:
4. What about style?
How do you both form a connection with the reader and keep your language simple?
First, you master the fundamentals. You practice. Then, just be yourself. That’s your style.
Reaching for “gaudy similes and tinseled adjectives” does not create style, Zinsser writes. Style comes from your authenticity and uniqueness.
How do you pull that into your writing? Relax and have confidence.
5. Write in the first person, if you can.
It’s easier to be natural and retain your humanity.
6. Don’t get caught up with pleasing your audience.
Try not to guess what editors want to publish or what the country is in the mood to read:
“Editors and readers don’t know what they want to read until they read it. Besides, they’re always looking for something new.”
7. Dictionaries and thesauruses are your friends.
They also remind you of all the word choices out there, helping you to avoid clichés.
Writing Well Takes Practice
Zinssler’s absolutely right that writing is hard. But his book isn’t discouraging—rather, it inspires me to keep practicing. There’s always room to grow as a writer, and I love that On Writing Well outlines major ways we can all grow.
Which of these tips do you find most challenging to apply? Let us know in the comments.