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Book Summary – On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

Almost everyone writes, be it emails, text messages, blogs, articles, or business reports. “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser is a classic in the field of writing. It focuses on the art of writing non-fiction prose, with an emphasis on writing clearly and concisely. The ideas and tips are useful for writers, aspiring writers, or anyone who wants to write more effectively. In this free summary of On Writing Well, you’ll get an overview of the key principles and approaches to good non-fiction writing.  

What’s “On Writing Well” About?

This book was first written in 1976 for people who want to learn to write. Although this 30th edition was published 30 years later, most of the ideas and principles in the original book remained relevant, and writing remains a key mode of communication.

The role of writers is to share things that people want to read. And good writing—from an article to a book, email, or report—is essential for conveying useful information.

Every writer has his/her style and approach. Some write only when they’re in the mood, while others follow a strict schedule. Some write by hand, while others write on their computers or narrate into a voice recorder. Some prefer to write in the day, while others prefer to write at night. There’s no “right” way to write. However, you can adopt several principles and approaches to write more effectively

The book is written in 4 parts to address the principles, methods, forms, and attitudes for writing well. The first 2 sections on principles and methods are more “meaty” with  lots of practical tips about writing non-fiction.  The last 2 sections focus more on how to apply those principles and methods to different forms of non-fiction, and how to get started on your journey

On Writing Well - Overview of 4 parts

Principles of Writing Well

Here’s a visual overview of Zinsser’s principles for writing well. We’ll be zooming in on a few principles below, and you can get details and examples on all 7 principles in our full 14-page On Writing Well summary.

On Writing Well summary - Principles

Writing = Transaction

Nonfiction writing involves a transaction between the writer and the reader. A writer isn’t selling the subject, but who he/she is as a person. That’s why it’s important to find your own voice instead of imitating someone else’s.

Great writing has humanity and warmth. It uses language effectively to convey the messages clearly and strongly, and has an energy that carries the reader from one line to the next.

Keep Your Writing Simple

The reader has a short attention span and is surrounded by distractions. It’s the writer’s responsibility to capture and retain the reader’s attention.

To write clearly, you must first think clearly. Ask yourself: What am I trying to say? Have I said it? Is it clear to someone who’s new to this subject?

Reduce every sentence to its simplest elements. Remove all unnecessary words (e.g. adverbs or adjectives that say the same thing as the verb/noun, like “sprint quickly” or “white snow”). Replace long words with shorter ones (e.g. assistance vs help). Drop all technical jargon and superfluous phases, e.g. “I might add” or “I must point out”.

Your Audience = You

Don’t try to cater specifically for a target audience, nor second-guess what your editor wants. Every reader is different, and people often don’t know what they want until they see it. Instead, write for yourself. If you prefer to use words like “ain’t” and “wanna”, or choose to share quotes without quotations marks, go ahead.

Use your natural tone, be it light and humorous, or serious and thought-provoking. Stay true to yourself. The right audience will like your writing; the wrong audience won’t.

However, writing what pleases you isn’t the same as writing sloppily. You must still get your fundamentals right—that includes your grammar, syntax, sentence structure and vocabulary.

Other Principles

That brings us to the other principles of writing that Zinsser presents, such as how to choose your words carefully, reduce clutter, find your unique style, and what it means to write in “good” English.

Methods for Writing Well

This section addresses techniques for improving the approach and quality of your writing.

Unity

A key success factor in nonfiction writing is Unity: to distill your materials and organize them into a coherent narrative. Identify the core before you start writing, so you can be consistent from start to finish.

• In what capacity are you addressing the reader: As a specialist? An average man or woman? A reporter?

• What pronoun will you use? Will you write as the first person (using “I”), as the second person (addressing the reader as “You”), or as a third person (an observer)?

• Will you be writing in the past tense or present tense?

• What’s your attitude and tone of voice? Will you be casual or formal? Personal or impersonal?  Judgmental or amused?

• What’s the 1 thing you want the reader to take away?

Start Well and End Well

In any article, the first sentence is the most crucial, followed by the second sentence, then the third. Each sentence should hook the reader and pull him/her to the next line. Zinsser calls this “the lead”.

Your ending is equally important. Don’t just summarize the entire article. Instead, end with a sentence or a paragraph that lingers on the reader’s mind.

Zinsser shares various approaches you can use to start and end powerfully. He also touches on other technical tips such as re-writing, building confidence, and the dos and don’ts of writing.  Do check out the On Writing Well summary bundle for those additional insights!

Forms and Attitudes of Writing

You can apply the principles and methods above to all forms of non-fiction writing.  Zinsser points out the nuances and common pitfalls for various types of non-fiction writing, including: literature, interviews, travel, memoirs, business writing, sports-writing, art, humor, science and technology. For each area, he suggests dos and don’ts to bring make your writing clearer and more effective.

Take business writing for example. Emails, memos, letters, reports, and proposals are commonly used at work. Good writing should impart information clearly without sounding stiff or arrogant. Write like a person, not an institution. Avoid vague, pretentious language (e.g. “It is our hope to engage in open dialogue and continual feedback.”)  Just speak/write like yourself (e.g. “If you have any suggestions, please let us know.”)

Zinsser ends off with tips to start your writing journey and learn/grow as a writer, including how to practice consistently, cultivate good taste, find your voice and purpose, make the right decisions and act upon them.

Getting More from “On Writing Well”

Ready to improve your writing skills? Do check out our full book summary bundle which includes an infographic, 14-page text summary, and a 31-minute audio summary.
On Writing Well summary - book summary bundle

In the book, Zinsser shares his personal experiences and views on writing well, along with general principles, writing techniques, and the dos and don’ts of nonfiction writing. He includes many excerpts of good and bad writing, and discusses the style and approach of famous writers such as E.B. White, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. You can purchase the book here.

Besides writing well, check out these summaries on: How to Read a Book, How to Take Smart Notes, and Storytelling with Data.

About the Author of On Writing Well

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction was written by William Knowlton Zinsser (1922-2015)–an American writer, editor, literary critic, and teacher. He began his career as a journalist for the New York Herald Tribune, where he worked as a feature writer, drama editor, film critic and editorial writer. He had written 18 books, and was a longtime contributor to leading magazines. Zinsser was a graduate from Princeton University. Zinsser passed away in 2015.

On Writing Well Quotes

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

“Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident…If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”

“Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.”

“Good writers of prose must be part poet, always listening to what they write.”

“Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost.”

“Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.”

“Just because people work for an institution, they don’t have to write like one.”

“How we write and how we talk is how we define ourselves.”

Click here to download the On Writing Well summary & infographic

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