Thursday, October 25, 2012

nonfiction lessons #3- on writing well

On Writing Well, I am pleased to say, is written very well. Zinsser knows what he's talking about and he doesn't waste time with unnecessary elaborations. The book focuses primarily on nonfiction, but nearly all the chapters are applicable to writing fiction as well. 

He begins with the basics (Simplicity, Clutter, Style, Audience, Words, Usage), dips into methods (Unity, Leads, Endings), gives further tips for different types of nonfiction writing (Interviews, Travel Writing, Memoirs, Science Writing, Business Writing, Sports Writing, Critics, Columnists, Humor), and ends with some more general ideas (Voice, Fear/Confidence, the Final Product, Decisions, Editors). I skipped a few that I wasn't interested inI have no desire to write a memoir and highly doubt I will ever write about sportsbut I'm sure those sections were just as useful and polished as the rest.

I really enjoyed it. Just a very clean, effective, helpful book about writing.


1. “Don’t start a sentence with ‘however’—it hangs there like a wet dishrag. And don’t end with ‘however’—by that time it has lost its howeverness.”

2. “Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with ‘but.’ If that’s what you learned, unlearn it—there’s no stronger word at the start.”

3. On whether to use 'that' or 'which' in situations where both are technically correct: Always use ‘that’ unless it makes your meaning ambiguous. Notice that in carefully edited magazines, such as The New Yorker, ‘that’ is by far the predominant usage. I mention this because it is still widely believed—a residue from school and college—that ‘which’ is more correct, more acceptable, more literary. It’s not. In most situations, ‘that’ is what you would naturally say and therefore what you should write.”

4. “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 . . . Newspaper paragraphs should only be two or three sentences long; newspaper type is set in a narrow width, and the inches quickly add up . . . But don’t go berserk. A succession of tiny paragraphs is as annoying as a paragraph that’s too long.”

5. “Writers have to jump-start themselves at the moment of performance, no less than actors and dancers and painters and musicians. There are some writers who sweep us along so strongly in the current of their energy—Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Toni Morrison, William F. Buckley, Jr., Hunter Thompson, David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers—that we assume that when they go to work the words just flow. Nobody thinks of the effort they made every morning to turn on the switch.”

TITLE: On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
AUTHOR: William Zinsser
PUBLICATION DATE: 1976 originally (30th anniversary edition with updated material- May 2006)
DATE FINISHED: 25 October 2012
VERDICT: 4/5 stars

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