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On Writing Well (1976)

by William Zinsser

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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6,776761,363 (4.14)102
Warns against common errors in structure, style, and diction, and explains the fundamentals of conducting interviews and writing travel, scientific, sports, critical, and humorous articles.
Recently added bySB33, andrewlac, Tiffany.Hills, private library, tgood61, Chenry364, luckietides08, Bloum, LisaShawFD

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English (75)  Norwegian (1)  All languages (76)
Showing 1-5 of 75 (next | show all)
A solid look at writing nonfiction (and writing in general) that covers a lot of ground. Zinsser discusses things like word choice, sentence length, and grammar; he also gives tips on specific kinds of nonfiction writing (travel, memoir, business, science, etc.).

The author includes a lot of real-life writing samples to illustrate his points. Some of these are great, and others are boring (even when Zinsser thinks they're great).

The book is a little long for my taste, but there's a lot of good advice here and I'll definitely return to it in the future.

Note: There are a few curse words. ( )
  RachelRachelRachel | Nov 21, 2023 |
Specifically about writing nonfiction (principles, techniques + tips for all sorts of non-fiction writing e.g. memoirs, business, sports, art...) . You'll learn:
• The principles and methods for writing well, including how to find your unique voice, simplify your writing, write coherently, choose the right words, use "good" English, start and end well, and polish your writing till it shines.
• How to apply the principles and methods above to all types of non-fiction writing, from sports to travel, memoirs and business writing.
• How to get started on your writing journey and hone your skills as a writer.

Book summary at: https://readingraphics.com/book-summary-on-writing-well-william-zinsser/ ( )
  AngelaLamHF | May 30, 2023 |
I learned some things from this classic. ( )
  mykl-s | Nov 27, 2022 |
On Writing Well provides advice on how to write non-fiction. It is logically organized into four sections: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitude. The first section covers the basics. It conveys tips on writing in a straight-forward uncluttered manner with emphasis on action verbs. The second focuses on organization, presentation, and structure. The third shows examples of different types of writing, such as travel, memoir, science, business, sports, arts, and humor. The last section explores finding your own voice. It covers intangibles such as setting high standards, gaining confidence, and taking risks. This book is geared toward writing in English, but the concepts can be applied to other languages.

Zinsser’s background, as a published author and former professor at Yale and Columbia, gives him credibility. The book is easy to read and understand. I particularly liked Zinsser’s analysis of writing samples, with suggestions for improvement. I smiled often at his use of humor: “Leave ‘myriad’ and their ilk to the poets. Leave ‘ilk’ to anyone who will take it away.”

Originally published in 1976, I read the 30th anniversary edition, which has been updated but still feels dated – such as references to printouts and word processors. The author holds strong opinions and states them forcefully. He also tends to repeat himself. Nevertheless, I discovered sound tools and techniques to incorporate into my writing. Life-long learners will value the content. ( )
  Castlelass | Oct 30, 2022 |
I have mixed feelings about this book. I rate the first 94 pages five stars, but the rest average one and a half. That's a 28% good book, and that makes my final three star ratings more than generous.

What Zinsser writes in the first 94 pages cater to a level of practicality and emotional value that makes those pages worth more than any other 94 pages in the book. His words sink deep when other writing books skip on the surface. He gives a qualitative view on what counts as clutter, what counts as style, and that it's up to the writer to make these decisions. There are more exceptions than absolutes and we shouldn't bind to what a strict English teacher told us. We shouldn't be scared of writing. I love writing regardless of my experiences in school, and with that love I too have been equally scared.

It's refreshing to have someone who has worked in newspaper, magazines, and teaching--at the prestigious Yale and smaller, community institutions--to tell you that as long as you work hard and know your basics you have every reason to be confident. He has a great voice and I can see myself reading those 94 pages again as a refresher and a pep talk in a few years.

However, the rest of the book is either common sense (or is that just me?) or biased based on personality and background. I don't blame him for this. The book was never designed to be objective, or his comforting voice wouldn't resonate, or his vivid vocabulary wouldn't have forced me to keep the dictionary with me while I read.

Between my background in science communications and my personality, much of Zinsser's advice has noticeable flaws. His degree of emphasis on "humanity", how emotional and sensual humanity is, is worded like an absolute. It's the correct way to write. But it's merely a preference--the persuasive kind that is often marketable and employed by public relations writers. However, he reiterates throughout the book how much your writing needs to be you and you have to write for yourself and not for an editor or the assumed marketable audience. You.

Given how many times in the first 94 pages Zinsser mentions individuality and every writer needs to approach a story differently, not to mention his broad experience, I'm surprised that he narrows his perspective in the rest of the book. He doesn't grasp how variant personalities and world views are.

Many don't share his world view. While an article or a book automatically has some humanity because a human wrote it--especially if the writer keeps their voice--there's no obligation to be sensual. A lot of people just aren't expressive in that way and trying would feel and sound fake. An intelligent article in of itself also appeals across nonfiction.

Many history enthusiasts love the facts and a narrative that gives flow to the facts, like embodying the book with its own personality. Science books may never feature a human. They may have a cast of dedicated, knowledge-driven scientists. There may be no drama to elicit deep emotions in a reader that is readily swayed. But there is an audience for that style of presentation and they love it.

Essentially feeling-oriented writers seem to dominate the literature world. They make it their world. However, thinking-oriented writers have the thinking-oriented readership the other writers estrange. To these readers sensual writing is, to borrow the most frequent quote, "That's B.S." But an orchestration of logos, information that offers a new perspective, and a dose of a writer's reasonable personality wins them. They want something that is either exclusively practical or something that's intellectually enlightening. They aren't even uncommon; just understated.

I found the first 94 pages be wholesome, but the rest was conceptually incomplete.

On a side note, contrary to the chapter about science and technology,chimpanzees are not "down a rung on the ladder" to humans. That would be all the primates, mice, fish, and bacteria from bygone eras. Chimps have their own ladder. They also have a meme for this misconception and thus I find it humourous enough to mention. ( )
  leah_markum | Oct 28, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 75 (next | show all)
Not since "The Elements of Style" has there been a guide to writing as well presented and readable as this one. A love and respect for the language is evident on every page.
added by ArrowStead | editLibrary Journal
"On Writing Well" is a bible for a generation of writers looking for clues to clean, compelling prose.
added by ArrowStead | editNew York Times

» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Zinsser, Williamprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Orenstein, AlmaDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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[Introduction] One of the pictures hanging in my office in mid-Manhattan is a photograph of the writer E. B. White.
A school in Connecticut once held "a day devoted to the arts," and I was asked if I would come and talk about writing as a vocation.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Warns against common errors in structure, style, and diction, and explains the fundamentals of conducting interviews and writing travel, scientific, sports, critical, and humorous articles.

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