On Writing Well's notes, summary and lessons

By William Zinsser

Rating: 9/10

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  • Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is.

    Page: 5
  • The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest 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.

    Page: 6
  • Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English.

    Page: 8
  • Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they don’t know. Then they must look at what they have written and ask: have I said it?

    Page: 9
  • Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful? Simplify, simplify.

    Page: 16
  • Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.

    Page: 23
  • You are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience — every reader is a different person.

    Page: 24
  • When you’re choosing words and stringing them together, how they sound. This may seem absurd: readers read with their eyes. But in fact they hear what they are reading far more than you realize. Therefore such matters as rhythm and alliteration are vital to every sentence.

    Page: 35
  • If all your sentences move at the same plodding gait, which even you recognize as deadly but don’t know how to cure, read them aloud.

    Page: 36
  • As for what point you want to make, every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before. Not two thoughts, or five—just one.

    Page: 52
  • Every writing project must be reduced before you start to write. Therefore think small. Decide what corner of your subject you’re going to bite off, and be content to cover it well and stop.

    Page: 52
  • The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the “lead.”

    Page: 54
  • Therefore your lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading... Next the lead must do some real work. It must provide hard details that tell the reader why the piece was written and why he ought to read it. But don’t dwell on the reason. Coax the reader a little more; keep him inquisitive.

    Page: 55
  • Just tell a story. It’s such a simple solution, so obvious and unsophisticated, that we often forget that it’s available to us. But narrative is the oldest and most compelling method of holding someone’s attention; everybody wants to be told a story. Always look for ways to convey your information in narrative form.

    Page: 60
  • Knowing when to end an article is far more important than most writers realize. You should give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did to your first. Well, almost as much.

    Page: 63
  • For the nonfiction writer, the simplest way of putting this into a rule is: when you’re ready to stop, stop. If you have presented all the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the nearest exit.

    Page: 64
  • The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right.

    Page: 64
  • Something I often do in my writing is to bring the story full circle. But what usually works best is a quotation.

    Page: 65
  • Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb. Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum. Active verbs push hard; passive verbs tug fitfully. Most adverbs are unnecessary. You will clutter your sentence and annoy the reader if you choose a verb that has a specific meaning and then add an adverb that carries the same meaning. Most adjectives are also unnecessary. Like adverbs, they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don’t stop to think that the concept is already in the noun.

    Page: 67
  • The adjective that exists solely as decoration is a self-indulgence for the writer and a burden for the reader.

    Page: 70
  • If you find yourself hopelessly mired in a long sentence, it’s probably because you’re trying to make the sentence do more than it can reasonably do—perhaps express two dissimilar thoughts. The quickest way out is to break the long sentence into two short sentences, or even three.

    Page: 71
  • Always use “that” unless it makes your meaning ambiguous. However, if your sentence needs a comma to achieve its precise meaning, it probably needs “which.”

    Page: 75
  • Keep your paragraphs short. Writing is visual—it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain. Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, whereas a long chunk of type can discourage a reader from even starting to read.

    Page: 79
  • Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost. That idea is hard to accept. We all have an emotional equity in our first draft; we can’t believe that it wasn’t born perfect. But the odds are close to 100 percent that it wasn’t.

    Page: 83
  • The reader plays a major role in the act of writing and must be given room to play it. Don’t annoy your readers by over-explaining—by telling them something they already know or can figure out. Try not to use words like “surprisingly,” “predictably” and “of course,” which put a value on a fact before the reader encounters the fact. Trust your material.

    Page: 91
  • Humor is the secret weapon of the nonfiction writer. It’s secret because so few writers realize that humor is often their best tool—and sometimes their only tool —for making an important point.

    Page: 207
  • Clichés are one of the things you should keep listening for when you rewrite and read your successive drafts aloud. Notice how incriminating they sound, convicting you of being satisfied to use the same old chestnuts instead of making an effort to replace them with fresh phrases of your own. Clichés are the enemy of taste.

    Page: 235
  • Learning how to organize a long article is just as important as learning how to write a clear and pleasing sentence. All your clear and pleasing sentences will fall apart if you don’t keep remembering that writing is linear and sequential, that logic is the glue that holds it together, that tension must be maintained from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next and from one section to the next, and that narrative—good old-fashioned storytelling—is what should pull your readers along without their noticing the tug. The only thing they should notice is that you have made a sensible plan for your journey. Every step should seem inevitable.

    Page: 261
  • The hardest decision about any article is how to begin it. The lead must grab the reader with a provocative idea and continue with each paragraph to hold him or her in a tight grip, gradually adding information. The point of the information is to get readers so interested that they will stick around for the whole trip.

    Page: 262
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