“Few people realize how badly they write,” says William Zinsser. But there’s hope. Writing, he says, is a craft that can be learned by anyone who is willing to work at it. We should remember something about the man or woman who, in our mind, sits down at the keyboard and types out the perfect piece on the first go: that person doesn’t exist.
“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.”
Zinsser’s section on the principles of writing sounds like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Simplicity is the highest virtue–“The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.” On the other hand, “clutter is the disease of American writing.”
Clarity, simplicity, brevity, and humanity are Zinsser’s “four articles of faith.” He says that any piece of non-fiction writing can be enjoyable if it is written with “warmth and humanity.” And he proves his point. On Writing Well is full of stories about real people. I enjoy reading it as much as any novel. I read half of it in the bookstore before I bought it, and I have read it several times since then.
Zinsser doesn’t just talk about principles, grammar, and style. His book has chapters on nearly every genre of non-fiction writing: interviews, travel articles, memoir, business writing, science and technology, sports writing, reviewing, and humor. There’s something for everyone.
I do realize how badly I write. For that reason, I read every book on writing that I can find. Few have been as helpful as On Writing Well. None have been as enjoyable to read.
Zinsser is qualified to tell us how to write. He has written books on subjects from baseball to jazz, including this book that has sold over one million copies and is in its seventh printing. Mr. Zinsser has also taught writing at Yale and Columbia University.
We get a glimpse of Zinsser’s political views in places. Though they are different than mine, it doesn’t change the way I feel about the book. Unlike some books on writing, this one is not trying to persuade the reader politically or morally. Zinsser’s goal is to make better writers. What if we hear his likes and dislikes? After all, he’s a real person writing with warmth and humanity.
If you want a book that will help you become a better non-fiction writer, this is the one.
Update: The reviewer’s political views are more similar to Zinsser’s than they were nine years ago.