On Writing Well

William Zinsser

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If you write, read this book and take notes. Not only does this contain exceptional advice for writing , it’s also a pleasure to read.

Notes

Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is. I often find myself reading with interest about a topic I never thought would interest me—some scientific quest, perhaps. What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field.

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.

The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating experiencing considerable precipitation wouldn’t think of saying it may rain. The sentence is too simple—there must be something wrong with it. But 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.

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? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time?

Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.

Consider all the prepositions that are draped onto verbs that don’t need any help. We no longer head committees. We head them up. We don’t face problems anymore. We face up to them when we can free up a few minutes. A small detail, you may say—not worth bothering about. It is worth bothering about. Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there. “Up” in “free up” shouldn’t be there.

[remove “personal”] Take the adjective “personal,” as in “a personal friend of mine,” “his personal feeling” or “her personal physician.”

Even before John Dean, people and businesses had stopped saying “now.” They were saying “currently” (“all our operators are currently assisting other customers”), or “at the present time,” or “presently” (which means “soon”). Yet the idea can always be expressed by “now” to mean the immediate moment (“Now I can see him”), or by “today” to mean the historical present (“Today prices are high”), or simply by the verb “to be” (“It is raining”).

“Experiencing” is one of the worst clutterers. Even your dentist will ask if you are experiencing any pain. If he had his own kid in the chair he would say, “Does it hurt?” He would, in short, be himself.

Clutter is the official language used by corporations to hide their mistakes. When the Digital Equipment Corporation eliminated 3,000 jobs its statement didn’t mention layoffs; those were “involuntary methodologies.” When an Air Force missile crashed, it “impacted with the ground prematurely.” When General Motors had a plant shutdown, that was a “volume-related production-schedule adjustment.” Companies that go belly-up have “a negative cash-flow position.”

Beware, then, of the long word that’s no better than the short word: “assistance” (help), “numerous” (many), “facilitate” (ease), “individual” (man or woman), “remainder” (rest), “initial” (first), “implement” (do), “sufficient” (enough), “attempt” (try), “referred to as” (called) and hundreds more. Beware of all the slippery new fad words: paradigm and parameter, prioritize and potentialize. They are all weeds that will smother what you write. Don’t dialogue with someone you can talk to. Don’t interface with anybody.

Just as insidious are all the word clusters with which we explain how we propose to go about our explaining: “I might add,” “It should be pointed out,” “It is interesting to note.” If you might add, add it. If it should be pointed out, point it out. If it is interesting to note, make it interesting; are we not all stupefied by what follows when someone says, “This will interest you”? Don’t inflate what needs no inflating: “with the possible exception of” (except), “due to the fact that” (because), “he totally lacked the ability to” (he couldn’t), “until such time as” (until), “for the purpose of” (for).

Is there any way to recognize clutter at a glance? Here’s a device my students at Yale found helpful. I would put brackets around every component in a piece of writing that wasn’t doing useful work. Often just one word got bracketed: the unnecessary preposition appended to a verb (“order up”), or the adverb that carries the same meaning as the verb (“smile happily”), or the adjective that states a known fact (“tall skyscraper”). Often my brackets surrounded the little qualifiers that weaken any sentence they inhabit (“a bit,” “sort of”), or phrases like “in a sense,” which don’t mean anything.

Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.

The institutions that seek our support by sending us their brochures sound remarkably alike, though surely all of them—hospitals, schools, libraries, museums, zoos—were founded and are still sustained by men and women with different dreams and visions. Where are these people? It’s hard to glimpse them among all the impersonal passive sentences that say “initiatives were undertaken” and “priorities have been identified.”

It’s hard to know where to begin picking from his trove of equivocal statements, but consider this one: “And yet, on balance, affirmative action has, I think, been a qualified success.” A 13-word sentence with five hedging words. I give it first prize as the most wishy-washy sentence in modern public discourse, though a rival would be his analysis of how to ease boredom among assembly-line workers: “And so, at last, I come to the one firm conviction that I mentioned at the beginning: it is that the subject is too new for final judgments.” That’s a firm conviction?

“Who am I writing for?” It’s a fundamental question, and it has a fundamental answer: You are writing for yourself.

The English language is rich in strong and supple words. Take the time to root around and find the ones you want.

What is “journalese”? It’s a quilt of instant words patched together out of other parts of speech. Adjectives are used as nouns (“greats,” “notables”). Nouns are used as verbs (“to host”), or they are chopped off to form verbs (“enthuse,” “emote”), or they are padded to form verbs (“beef up,” “put teeth into”). This is a world where eminent people are “famed” and their associates are “staffers,” where the future is always “upcoming” and someone is forever “firing off” a note.

“Shouldered his way,” “only to be met,” “crashing into his face,” “waging a lonely war,” “corruption that is rife,” “sending shock waves,” “New York’s finest”—these dreary phrases constitute writing at its most banal.

If you find yourself writing that someone recently enjoyed a spell of illness, or that a business has been enjoying a slump, ask yourself how much they enjoyed it. Notice the decisions that other writers make in their choice of words and be finicky about the ones you select from the vast supply. The race in writing is not to the swift but to the original.

Master the small gradations between words that seem to be synonyms. What’s the difference between “cajole,” “wheedle,” “blandish” and “coax”?

See if you can gain variety by reversing the order of a sentence, or by substituting a word that has freshness or oddity, or by altering the length of your sentences so they don’t all sound as if they came out of the same machine. An occasional short sentence can carry a tremendous punch. It stays in the reader’s ear.

Any dolt can rule that the suffix “wise,” as in “healthwise,” is doltwise, or that being “rather unique” is no more possible than being rather pregnant.

We rejected “too” as a synonym for “very,” as in “His health is not too good.” Whose health is? But we approved it in sardonic or humorous use, as in “He was not too happy when she ignored him.”

Nouns now turn overnight into verbs. We target goals and we access facts. Train conductors announce that the train won’t platform. A sign on an airport door tells me that the door is alarmed. Companies are downsizing. It’s part of an ongoing effort to grow the business. “Ongoing” is a jargon word whose main use is to raise morale. We face our daily job with more zest if the boss tells us it’s an ongoing project; we give more willingly to institutions if they have targeted our funds for ongoing needs.

I would say, for example, that “prioritize” is jargon—a pompous new verb that sounds more important than “rank”—and that “bottom line” is usage, a metaphor borrowed from the world of bookkeeping that conveys an image we can picture. As every businessman knows, the bottom line is the one that matters. If someone says, “The bottom line is that we just can’t work together,” we know what he means. I don’t much like the phrase, but the bottom line is that it’s here to stay.

I don’t want to give somebody my input and get his feedback, though I’d be glad to offer my ideas and hear what he thinks of them. Good usage, to me, consists of using good words if they already exist—as they almost always do—to express myself clearly and simply to someone else. You might say it’s how I verbalize the interpersonal.

You learn to write by writing. It’s a truism, but what makes it a truism is that it’s true. The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.

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.

You’ll know you have arrived at III when you see emerging on your screen a sentence that begins, “In sum, it can be noted that …” Or a question that asks, “What insights, then, have we been able to glean from …?” These are signals that you are about to repeat in compressed form what you have already said in detail. The reader’s interest begins to falter; the tension you have built begins to sag.

“Joe saw him” is strong. “He was seen by Joe” is weak. The first is short and precise; it leaves no doubt about who did what. The second is necessarily longer and it has an insipid quality: something was done by somebody to someone else. It’s also ambiguous.

Don’t choose one that is dull or merely serviceable. Make active verbs activate your sentences, and avoid the kind that need an appended preposition to complete their work. Don’t set up a business that you can start or launch. Don’t say that the president of the company stepped down. Did he resign? Did he retire? Did he get fired? Be precise. Use precise verbs.

Don’t tell us that the radio blared loudly; “blare” connotes loudness. Don’t write that someone clenched his teeth tightly; there’s no other way to clench teeth.

And while we’re at it, let’s retire “decidedly” and all its slippery cousins. Every day I see in the paper that some situations are decidedly better and others are decidedly worse, but I never know how decided the improvement is, or who did the deciding, just as I never know how eminent a result is that’s eminently fair, or whether to believe a fact that’s arguably true.

Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw: “a bit,” “a little,” “sort of,” “kind of,” “rather,” “quite,” “very,” “too,” “pretty much,” “in a sense” and dozens more. They dilute your style and your persuasiveness.

I can’t overstate how much easier it is for readers to process a sentence if you start with “but” when you’re shifting direction. Or, conversely, how much harder it is if they must wait until the end to realize that you have shifted.

If your sentence needs a comma to achieve its precise meaning, it probably needs “which.” “Which” serves a particular identifying function, different from “that.” (A) “Take the shoes that are in the closet.” This means: take the shoes that are in the closet, not the ones under the bed. (B) “Take the shoes, which are in the closet.” Only one pair of shoes is under discussion; the “which” usage tells you where they are. Note that the comma is necessary in B, but not in A.

Nouns that express a concept are commonly used in bad writing instead of verbs that tell what somebody did. Here are three typical dead sentences: The common reaction is incredulous laughter. Bemused cynicism isn’t the only response to the old system. The current campus hostility is a symptom of the change.Turn these cold sentences around. Get people doing things: Most people just laugh with disbelief. Some people respond to the old system by turning cynical; others say … It’s easy to notice the change—you can see how angry all the students are.

The longer I work at the craft of writing, the more I realize that there’s nothing more interesting than the truth.

Taste chooses words that have surprise, strength and precision. Non-taste slips into the breezy vernacular of the alumni magazine’s class notes—a world where people in authority are the top brass or the powers that be. What exactly is wrong with “the top brass”? Nothing—and everything. Taste knows that it’s better to call people in authority what they are: officials, executives, chairmen, presidents, directors, managers. Non-taste reaches for the corny synonym, which has the further disadvantage of being imprecise; exactly which company officers are the top brass? Non-taste uses “umpteenth.” And “zillions.” Non-taste uses “period”: “She said she didn’t want to hear any more about it. Period.”

After verbs, plain nouns are your strongest tools; they resonate with emotion.

If something strikes me as funny in the act of writing, I throw it in just to amuse myself. If I think it’s funny I assume a few other people will find it funny, and that seems to me to be a good day’s work.

When my father finished writing his histories he had them typed, mimeographed and bound in a plastic cover. He gave a copy, personally inscribed, to each of his three daughters, to their husbands, to me, to my wife, and to his 15 grandchildren, some of whom couldn’t yet read. I like the fact that they all got their own copy; it recognized each of them as an equal partner in the family saga.

Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is to come to terms with your life narrative. Another is to work through some of life’s hardest knocks—loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace.

I never felt that my memoir had to include all the important things that ever happened to me—a common temptation when old people sit down to summarize their life journey. Many of the chapters in my memoir are about small episodes that were not objectively “important” but that were important to me.

Here’s what I suggest. Go to your desk on Monday morning and write about some event that’s still vivid in your memory. It doesn’t have to be long—three pages, five pages—but it should have a beginning and an end. Put that episode in a folder and get on with your life. On Tuesday morning, do the same thing. Tuesday’s episode doesn’t have to be related to Monday’s episode… Keep this up for two months, or three months, or six months. Don’t be impatient to start writing your “memoir”—the one you had in mind before you began. Then, one day, take all your entries out of their folder and spread them on the floor. (The floor is often a writer’s best friend.) Read them through and see what they tell you and what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoir is about—and what it’s not about.

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