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On Writing Well

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Read in November 2020

"An occasional short sentence can carry a tremendous punch."

I got the recommendation from this list of DHH. As a non-native English speaker trying to express himself, I think it's an enlightening guide. I'm not familiar with American literature. Yet it's evident that Zinsser is one of the best authors of non-fiction writing. He's also a wise teacher and an admirable New Yorker.

On Writing Well has four main sections: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes. The first two focuses more on the fundamentals of non-fiction writing. They help to build checklists and take action. The latter two are about shaping identity as a non-fiction writer. They contain many examples, analyses, and advice around the mindset. "I am more interested in the intangibles that produce good writing—confidence, enjoyment, intention, integrity" as he says.

Principle: The Transaction

Writing is not an art; it's a craft. You must show up and write every day.

Any writer's product has to sell is not the subject written about, but who they are. The author's enthusiasm keeps the reader engaged with the writing.

Humanity and warmth are the two principles that establish personal transaction.

Rewriting is the essence of writing.

Principle: Simplicity

Declutter every element that isn't contributing to the cause.

The writer should continuously ask, "what am I trying to say," then look at the writing and ask, "have I said it?".

An average reader has an attention span of 30 seconds, and there's a galaxy of distractions to induce a disconnection.

If readers can't keep up, they blame themselves. Then they try to demystify the sentences and make a guess to move on. They, however, won't do that for too long.

Principle: Clutter

Every profession has its growing arsenal of jargon to throw dust in the eyes of the populace.

Clutter is the official language used by corporations to hide their mistakes. 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".

Clutter is the Pentagon's language calling an invasion a "reinforced protective reaction strike" and justifying its vast budgets on the need for "counterforce deterrence".

How to declutter a piece of writing

Put brackets to components that are not doing useful work.

  • Unnecessary preposition. (order up)
  • Unnecessary adverb. (smile happily)
  • Things that weaken the sentence. (a bit)

Re-read without the components in brackets. Keep, eliminate, or rewrite.

Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it's beautiful?

Principle: Style

Nobody becomes Thom Wolfe overnight, not even Thom Wolfe.

Readers want the person talking to them to sound genuine. They will notice if you are putting on airs.

They are the two most unrealistic demands from a writer but, relax and be confident.

Be yourself. Writing in the first person is the most natural form. Don't be afraid to say "I".

They will care about your opinions if you tell them something interesting. Never write anything you wouldn't comfortably say in a conversation.

If you are not allowed to use "I," write the first draft with it, then take it out. Yet, avoiding the "I" form is a reflection of the organizational or political tones.

Good writers are visible behind the words. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.

Principle: Audience

You are writing for yourself. Don't try to visualize the great mass audience. Don't hesitate to use humor by worrying if the readers will get it.

Craft: The Mechanical Act

It's for the reader. Know your tools; keep it simple, so they don't give up. There's no excuse for losing readers due to sloppy craft.

Attitude: The Creative Act

It's who you are, what you say, and how you say it. It's OK to lose readers due to who you are. You'll either get along or not.

Principle: Words

Words are the only tools you got. Choose them considerately. If you find yourself writing that someone enjoyed an illness or a business enjoyed going bankrupt, ask your self how much they really did.

Readers read with their eyes, but they hear what you write in their inner ears. Learning synonyms and acronyms would help you to establish a rhythm and alliteration.

An occasional short sentence can carry a tremendous punch. It stays in the readers' ear.

Principle: Usage

Choose plain words –if they already exist– to express yourself clearly to anyone.

I don't want to give somebody my input and get their feedback, though I would be glad to offer my ideas and hear what they think of them.

Methods: Unity

Unity is the anchor of good writing.

Unity of pronoun

You can speak as a first-person, participant, third person, or an observer.

Unity of tense

Don't switch back and forth too much. Pick the principal tense and make it prominent. If that's clear, then small switches would be alright.

Unity of mood

Any tone is acceptable. Just don't mix two or three.

Questions to ask

In what capacity am I going to address the reader? Reporter? Provider of information? Average person?

What pronoun and tense am I going to use?

What style? Impersonal reportorial? Personal but formal? Personal and casual?

What attitude am I going to take toward the material? Involved? Detached? Judgmental? Ironic? Amused?

How much do I want to cover? Don't feel an obligation to save the world. Think small. Decide what corner of the subject you are going to cover. Just make your point and look for the nearest exit.

What point do I want to make? Every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the readers with one provocative thought that they don't have before. Not two thoughts, or five - just one. So decide what single point you want to leave in the reader's mind.

Methods: The Lead and the Ending

The most important sentence in any article is the first one. Readers want to know –very soon– what's in for them. Therefore the lead must capture the readers immediately and force them to keep reading. It must cajole them with freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humor, or surprise, or with an unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question. Anything will do, as long as it nudges their curiosity.

I've often wondered what goes into a hot dog. Now I know, and I wish I didn't.

For the ending, if you have presented what you got and made your point, then stop. Surprise is the most refreshing element in non-fiction writing. The perfect ending would take readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right.

Tips for ending

  • Bring the story to full circle. Strike at the end an echo of a note that sounded at the beginning.
  • Use quotation with a sense of finality, humor, or that adds an unexpected closing detail.

Some general tips

Always collect more material than you will use.

Look for material everywhere, not just by reading obvious resources. Our daily landscape is thick with absurd messages; notice them.

Methods: Bits & Pieces

Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb. "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.

Most adverbs are unnecessary. You will clutter your sentence and annoy the reader if you choose a verb with a specific meaning and then add an adverb that carries the same purpose. "Effortlessly easy."

Most adjectives are also unnecessary. Adjectives like "yellow daffodils" and "brownish dirt" add no value to the meaning. If you're in a part of the country where the dirt is red, feel free to mention red dirt. The adjective that exists solely as a decoration is self-indulgence for the writer and a burden for the reader.

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," etc.) Don't say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. There is no need to call someone very methodical. Either he is methodical, or he isn't.


The Period. If you want to write long sentences, make sure that the sentence is under control from beginning to end, in syntax and punctuation, so that the reader knows where he is at every step of the winding trail. Just like this one! He does this lead by example things a lot.

The Exclamation Point. Don't use it unless you must to achieve a certain effect. Resist using an exclamation point to notify the reader that you are making a joke or being ironic. They are annoyed by your reminder that this was a comical moment. They are also robbed of the pleasure of finding it funny on their own. Humor is best when achieved by understatement, and there's nothing subtle about an exclamation point.

The Dash is used in two ways. One is to amplify or justify the second part of the sentence a thought you stated in the first part. "We decided to keep going–it was only 100 miles more and we could get there in time for dinner." The other use involves two dashes, which set apart a parenthetical though within a longer sentence.

Mood changers

Learn to alert the reader as soon as possible to any change in mood from the previous sentence. At least a dozen words will do this job for you: "but," "yet," "however," "nevertheless," "still," "instead," "thus," "therefore," "meanwhile," "later," "today," "subsequently," and more.

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. It announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is thereby primed for the change.

If you have too many sentences starting with "but," switch to "however." It is, however, a weaker word and needs careful placement. Don't start or end with "however."

"Yet" does almost the same job as "but," though its meaning is closer to "nevertheless." At the beginning of a sentence, either of those words can replace a whole long phrase that summarizes what the reader has just been told. "Despite the fact that all these dangers had been pointed out to him, he decided to go." -> "Yet he decided to go."


Your style will be warmer and truer to your personality if you use contractions like "I'll" and "won't" and "can't." Only avoid form "I'd"; hence it can mean both "I had" and "I would."

That and Which

Always use "that" unless it makes your meaning ambiguous. If your sentence needs a comma to achieve its precise meaning, it probably needs "which."