On Writing Well | William Zinsser

Summary of: On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
By: William Zinsser

Introduction

Delve into the world of nonfiction writing with ‘On Writing Well’ by William Zinsser, a classic guide packed with invaluable advice for writers of all levels. The book summary at hand revolves around the concept of simplicity as the key to great writing. Discover the importance of clear thinking, decluttering your mind, and focusing on the core message. Learn to avoid clutter in your writing, develop your authentic voice, and make a conscious effort to choose the right words. By understanding these vital aspects, you’ll get closer to mastering the art of nonfiction writing.

Writing with Simplicity

To write simply, the writer must clear their mind and strip each component of their writing to its cleanest parts. Adding complexity can detract from the message. The key to good writing is answering the central question: What am I trying to say?

Writing with Style

Writing is a craft that requires a clear and simple foundation before adding stylish elements. The key message of this book summary is that the secret to writing with style is finding your authentic voice. To develop your style, start by writing and don’t fixate on perfection. Instead, write in your own voice, use the first person when appropriate, and cultivate your natural flow. With time and practice, your unique style will reveal itself.

Choose Your Words Wisely

In writing, words are like tools and picking the right one for your piece is crucial. The author advises avoiding clichés, using a thesaurus judiciously, considering the rhythm of your sentences, and avoiding fashionable words that don’t fulfill a real need.

Craftsmanship often requires careful selection of tools, and writing is no exception. The words you select to convey your message are the writer’s equivalent of a craftsman’s tools. In this book’s summary, the author argues that to write effectively, you should choose your words carefully for the job at hand.

Avoid clichés, the author advises. Overused expressions, such as “a diamond in the rough” or “as old as the hills,” have lost their novelty and are indicators of lazy writing. They also bore readers and cause them to lose interest in a piece quickly. A writer should turn to a thesaurus for inspiration to avoid clichés, but they must pick alternate words carefully and deliberately so that precision takes priority over variety.

The rhythm of sentences is also essential in writing, even if the text is unlikely to be read aloud. The reader “hears” sentences in their minds, and the author should read their drafts aloud to assess the overall tone and discover areas where they can improve the aural experience.

The author also suggests avoiding jargon and ultra-contemporary buzzwords unless they explain a new concept and fill a linguistic need. Many new words, such as “dropout,” “multitask,” “laptop,” and “geek,” have become common usage because they fill lexical gaps. But writers should avoid fashionable words that seem like unnecessary replacements for existing words. The word “impact,” for instance, is often overused when “affect” is just as good.

In conclusion, as a craftsperson picks their tools carefully, choosing your words wisely takes careful consideration. Avoiding clichés, using a thesaurus judiciously, finding the right rhythm for your writing, and avoiding fashionable words that don’t fulfill a real need will have a significant effect on the quality of your work.

Consistency in Writing

A writer recounts a romantic trip to Italy but fails to maintain a consistent tone, shifting from personable to encyclopedia-like. The lesson is to keep writing focused and consistent by determining your audience, chosen tone, point of emphasis, and scope. Stick to your plan while remaining flexible until it best serves your message.

Engage your Reader with Strong Beginnings and Endings

The opening and closing of your writing can make or break how engaged your reader will be. William Zinsser, the author of How to Write Well, demonstrated how to captivate readers with a witty and mysterious introduction. The lead should entice the reader with a taste of what the article has to offer. It could be a compelling argument, a unique perspective, or a sense of mystery. The following paragraphs should add more complexity and nuance, with each subsequent sentence acting as a springboard to the next. The final sentence of each paragraph should be enticing, unexpected or funny to keep your reader engrossed. When approaching the finale, resist the urge to over-summarize or waffle and stop when you have laid out all the relevant information.

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