Thursday, September 8, 2011

On Writing Well, Zinsser

On Writing Well
William Zinsser
6th edition, 2001

“Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That’s almost the whole point of becoming a writer.”

Until now, I had never read a book about writing non-fiction, except when made to by a teacher. Now that I’m the teacher, however, I need something good to assign my students. I picked up On Writing Well at the suggestion of a fellow composition instructor, and I’m extremely glad I did. Not only have I found many snippets of useful tips to share with my students, but I’ve also learned and been reminded of oodles of crucial truths about what makes good writing that I myself had forgotten (either accidentally or willfully). I just finished the book and have already found it beneficial; in revising a short story this morning, I heeded Zinsser’s advice to suss out overly ornamental language and extraneous information, and take care to locate exactly the right word for every job. My story is better already!

On Writing Well is organized into four sections: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes. I admit that I did not read every single chapter in the Forms section; sports, business, and science and technology just aren’t my areas of interest. Travel, memoir, and criticism are. I only wish I’d heard of this book sooner; I very likely would have assigned the entire thing to my WR 323 class this fall, and I certainly would have been improving as a writer earlier myself. Oh well, luckily for you all, I’ve found it now!

Apart from the practicalities (have I mentioned it’s extremely useful?) I found the book interesting from a philosophical, ethical, and/or psychological standpoint as well (my own psychology, and the author’s). As I read Zinsser’s exhortations to do this and not that in my writing, I felt compelled, almost constantly in the early chapters, to ruthlessly analyze his writing, searching hopefully, expectantly, perhaps even maliciously, to find the very flaws in his work that he warned his readers against. Probably if you take enough time and care to find such shortcomings you can. After all, writing is a subjective art, and when Zinsser claims that the word he has chosen is the absolute best one the reader is free to disagree with him. If we interest ourselves instead, as Zinsser claims to do, with the qualities of “humanity, warmth, and aliveness” in writing, then we can find all of that here, on every page of this helpful and enjoyable book.

Many sections of On Writing Well seemed to speak directly to me, and I expect this would be the case with anyone who is passionate about improving their writing. As one who has fallen prey to the cynical game of trying to please an imagined audience or editor rather than myself, Zinsser’s words of advice on balancing the (seemingly) conflicting concerns of audience satisfaction and personal pleasure were especially compelling. “You are writing primarily to please yourself,” Zinsser reminded me. Oh yeah! “When your zest begins to ebb, the reader is the first to know it.” And so, Zinsser says, when you’re done, you should just get out. So here comes the end of the post.

On Writing Well is an excellent book and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in writing anything, not just non-fiction. Here are some others I've read and enjoyed (mostly all about writing fiction):

Bird by Bird by Anne Lammott
Page after Page by Heather Sellers
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway 
Plot by Ansen Dibell

I'm hungry for more! What other books on writing should I read?


  1. Thanks for this post! Now I'm totally getting On Writing Well and reading it for both myself and my students. Did you already mention Burning Down the House by Baxter? I have a collection of Flannery O'Conner's wisdom titled Mystery and Manners, which I love. Bringing the Devil to His Knees is another wonderful collection of craft essays.

  2. Thanks Emily and also B.L Goss - I will definitely be checking out On Writing Well and the other books mentioned! I'll soon be posting about 'books on writing' too - pretty much all about fiction writing, though - but I think many of the points are valid for different genres. Great post as usual, Emily.

  3. Thank you ladies! B.L. thanks for the suggestions - I will definitely be checking them out!

  4. I love Zinsser! I've only read "Writing to Learn," but I've had this one on my list for some time. Have you checked out Stephen King's "On Writing"? Like Lammott's "Bird by Bord", it's just as much memoir as a book on writing - worth checking out!

  5. Great! Maybe I can pick that up at our next bookshop rendezvous. :) Thanks T!