On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

by William Zinsser

On Writing Well will teach you the craft of writing warmly and clearly. It covers the principles, methods, forms and attitudes of writing effectively. Whether you are a professional or amateur writer, there’s plenty of valuable advice here.

Summary Notes

Writing is a craft

“Writing is a craft, not an art, and that the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself”.

Writing is not easy at all. It can be lonely and hard, especially when words seldom flow. As a professional writer, you have to find a way to stay inspired or you would simply go broke. It helps to establish a daily writing schedule - as long as you’re disciplined enough to follow it. 

Truthfully, there is no right or wrong way of writing. There are many different methods and principles and you should stick to the method that works best for you. Do you prefer to write during the day or at night? Do you need pin-drop silence or are you more inspired when listening to music? 

Whichever way, it's of the utmost importance to be enthusiastic about your field. This enthusiasm will drive the opinions you express, and it will be reflected in your writing. Always be yourself when writing - you can hardly be consistent with a borrowed personality. Plus, it's just a matter of time before your readers spot the fact that you are faking it.

Nevertheless, the best way of learning to write is by writing - by forcing yourself to produce a certain number of words daily. When you write often, you familiarize yourself with the process and you can start doing it with little effort.

Your goal should be to write simply and clearly for your readers to get the message you are sending across. For example, don’t use an adverb that means the same thing as the verb. For example instead of staging “she is uniquely creative” just state “is creative” because creativity is all about using your imaginations and original ideas to invent something.

Actions to take

Methods of writing

“The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis”.

During the writing process, you will encounter different types of problems that need to be solved. You may not be sure of where to obtain your facts or how to organize your material for optimal reading flow. You may also find it hard to choose an approach, attitude, or style that will convey your message just as you have it in your mind. 

Most of the time, the solution is to simply set aside time to think and ensure that there is unity in your writing. Unity is the idea that all the parts of your write-up work together to achieve the overall goal of communicating your message effectively. 

Unity is indeed the anchor of good writing. Getting your unity straight keeps your readers from straggling off in all directions and satisfies their subconscious need for order, reassuring them that all is well at the helm.

You should be able to connect all the bits and pieces of your writing project from the start to the end - ensure that your write-up flows coherently and chronologically from the start to the end. Your personality and your perspective should be reflected in your lead. 

For example, you could choose to tell your whole story in the first sentence like Betty Friedman’s The Feminine Mystique - “The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women”. 

Actions to take

Putting together all the bits and pieces in your writing

“Every writer is starting from a different point and is bound for a different destination”. 

Writing is a craft. You need to figure out the best ways of making your writing stand out so your readers can stay interested until the very end. There are many components of good writing and you can only excel if you learn how to organize all the bits and pieces to come up with a great article, book, novel, report, or even email.

Your usage of verbs and how well you punctuate can affect the quality of your writing. Yes, even little things like this can have a great impact on your overall work. It’s therefore important to read and broaden your mind - simply by exposing yourself to more and more works of writing, you’ll learn valuable skills. For example, you will learn how others use things like paragraphs and contractions well. You can then apply the same techniques to help your writing stand out to your audience.

Credibility is as fragile to a writer as it is to a president. Therefore, you have to get your facts right and avoid overstating or exaggerating things to impress your readers - they can easily see through your fakeness.

That said, you have to be unique in your writing. Make sure that what you put out there conveys your personality, your interests, and the message you intend to put across.

Actions to take

Understanding the different forms of writing

“Ultimately every writer must follow the path that feels most comfortable”.

Writing is complex and exists in two major categories - fiction and non-fiction. As a writer, you can follow any path you feel comfortable writing about. Non-fiction writing entails writing about what you know and what you have observed. Examples of non-fiction writing include writing about yourself (memoir/autobiography), people, places, science, sports, arts, and humor. 

Fiction on the other hand is the composition of non-factual texts to form novels, screenplays, novellas, and dramas.

Motivation is at the head of writing, so you should focus on the area you are most enthusiastic about. If non-fiction is where you do your best writing or best teaching of writing, you shouldn't be buffaloed into the idea that it's an inferior species. All you should aim at is good writing, irrespective of the form it takes.

That said, there are different approaches and tips for the different types of fiction and non-fiction writings. For example, it is of the utmost importance to conduct interviews when you are writing about people, so you can get first-hand information from them. Similarly, when writing about science and technology, it's important to describe how the various systems and processes work, using the step-by-step approach.

Actions to take

​Developing a unique writing style

“My commodity as a writer, whatever I’m writing about, is me. And your commodity is you”.

Every writer is unique. You do not need to alter your voice to suit your readers or role models. You should be more concerned about developing a unique voice that your readers will understand, irrespective of the subject you are writing about. 

An ideal voice is that which is enjoyable and relaxed that your readers feel you are talking to them directly. To achieve this, you need to appear effortless to your readers while keeping your grammar formal and using words that are plain, precise, and easy to understand.

Consider writing as an avenue to express your individuality to your audience. You must therefore make conscious efforts to avoid using cliché sentences so that you don’t sound like everyone else. Your character is also part of your individuality as a writer. The truth is that if you have sound values, they will be reflected in your writings and your readers will easily identify your write-ups once they stumble on them.

Besides finding your voice, you also need to be self-confident, knowing that by adopting the right tips and attitudes, you will certainly come up with a powerful write-up that will appeal to your target audience.

Actions to take

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