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Thursday, August 7, 2008

On Writing Well: The Zinsser Way

"Four basic premises of writing: clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity."
William Zinsser

In 1922 the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in Washington D.C. as thousands of people gathered to watch. Archaeologists also discovered the tomb of the Egyptian King Tutankhamun. And in that same year, William Zinsser was born while actors like Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford enjoyed their popularity and lucrative work.

Although Zinsser began his career as a journalist for the New York Herald Tribune, and went on to write more than a dozen books, he is most well known for his book entitled On Writing Well now in its 30th edition. Today, the legendary William Zinsser lives in New York City and teaches as an adjunct professor at Columbia University's School of Journalism. Even in his eighties, Zinsser continues to contribute to the writing world. In 2006, The American Scholar published an essay by William Zinsser entitled How to Write a Memoir: Be yourself, speak freely, and think small and just recently in 2008, The American Scholar published The Daily Miracle: Life with the mavericks and oddballs at the Herald Tribune where Zinsser writes about his days as a writer and teacher.

I began reading On Writing Well (fourth edition) by William Zinsser a few weeks ago and as usual I took notes, reread pages and contemplated his message. I reflected on my own writing, my style, tone and use of language. While some people believe that a "simple style reflects a simple mind," Zinsser on the other hand believes that a simple style "is the result of hard work and hard thinking." (106)

Every chapter of his book contains specific evidence of his immense knowledge and experience. He is a skillful mind reader and quickly predicts my moments of skepticism as he provides concrete and vivid examples to support his points. If that is insufficient, then he provides short excerpts from an array of noteworthy writers. When faced with such compelling evidence I find it difficult to reject what some might call daring assertions.

I have always enjoyed simple, clear and passionate writing that says something, means something and has value and significance. I am drawn to the writings of Robert Frost, Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, and Walt Whitman. Simple writing pleases me. Zinsser asks writers to remove pretentious, flowery and pompous language, keep sentences and words short while remaining true to individual style, tone and message. In addition, he recommends that a writer please himself or herself first and then the reader. Although this may sound somewhat contradictory and difficult to accomplish, Zinsser believes “hard writing makes easy reading. Easy writing makes hard reading.” In the end, what do we really want? Something for someone to read, enjoy and remember? Or do we want something "strictly" for our own enjoyment? Perhaps, the word "strictly" is the key.

If I don't enjoy reading my own words, why would anyone else enjoy my words. As writer I must remain loyal to myself but I must also remember my reader. Of course I want to write "my" way, but I also want to write something that someone else enjoys and understands. So how can writers best serve their readers, according to Zinsser? The answer is quite simple; write clearly and without clutter. Unity, according to Zinsser, is "the anchor of good writing" and "good writing is lean and confident." (60, 111)

On Writing Well
Do you write to please yourself first?
As you write, do you consider your reader?
Do you feel confident about your writing?


  1. Hello you made me curious. While I think to write every day is the best exercise for writers, why not read this book. I just ordered a copy...

  2. What if you just want to write good?

  3. Interesting post...I love to write but I have a difficult time writing!!!
    I will rewrite something 10 times before I feel as though it is exactly what I want to yes...I please myself first and then worry about the reader!! As you say...if I don't enjoy what I've written how can I expect a reader to???

    My dream is to someday write a novel...a "love story" full of hopes, dreams and romance...trivial but it makes us feel good!!!

    I read far too many Criminal Psychology/Psychology/Law texts a number of years ago...fluff is what I do now!! :0)


  4. I love this book. I was first introduced to it in the late 90's for my editing class in college. It was one of our textbooks.

    Good stuff. I still have my copy and should probably thumb through it once again. Sadly, I think I've strayed from his lessons. lol

  5. If I were a writer, I would write to please myself first. The story would have to come from deep within yourself for someone else to have to same feelings you felt as you told/wrote it.
    I believe great writers have great feelings toward living and sharing. They want the reader to understand how and what they felt. Understand what thoughts are moving around in their busy minds.
    If I were a writer, that is what I would think! I'm happy that I am just a simple farmgirl.
    Have a great day!

  6. I've used Zinsser's book in teaching college writing to prisoners. I tend to go back and forth between admiring and aggravated, which certainly makes it good for starting lively conversations!

  7. I love this book as well! I took a professional writing minor in college, and we used this book a lot.

  8. Hi Ray

    Curiosity also lead me to this book. And now that I have read it, I want to read some of his other books as well. You will not be sorry for reading this book. I would love to know what you think when you do read it. Let me know.

    Hi Fishhawk

    Writing well is exactly what this book is all about. Zinsser includes simple and concrete suggestions about grammar and sentence structure as well. I think you would benefit greatly if you do decide to read it. It is brief and easy to read, so you should be able to finish it quickly.

    Hi Heather

    According to Zinsser, you do not have to abandon your style or your ideas, you just need to find a way to communicate them clearly. Thanks for the comment.

    Hi Lala

    I have read many of your posts, and I do not think you have strayed too far since your posts are so interesting and easy to read. You have a very active blog and your creativity and tone have always drawn me in to read. Thanks for the visit.

    Hi Pam

    You are anything but a simple farm woman although there is nothing wrong with being "a simple farm woman." In my book you are not only a talented writer, but a gifted photographer as well. In true Zinsser fashion, you have a magnificent way of capturing your reader's attention and clearly communicating your thoughts...sounds like a writer to me.

    Hi Yogaforcynics

    I agree Zinsser does make some "daring assertions" that some would find difficult to accept. But every now and then he does hint at finding flexibility and uniqueness in ourselves and our writing and so I do not think he preaches a "strict" form. Thanks so much for the visit.

  9. Thank you for suggesting this book. I always write to please myself and hopefully I will engage the readers in my story along the way.
    I think Pam beautifully and succinctly expressed it in her post. I'm off to order the book now.

  10. Hi Mountain Woman

    Thank you for the visit and I am delighted to hear that you will be reading the book. I don't think you will be disappointed. Many of my readers have written the same--they too write to please themselves first. Perhaps that is why we enjoy reading each other's work so much. :)

  11. Usually I have no problem just letting my words flow. However, what you have called to my attention to, is the fact that I need to be more cognizant of the readers of my words and make sure that they are comfortable with reading them. Not just myself alone. Thanks for the reminders...and I do believe that I will look into obtaining that book - Nards

  12. Hi Nards

    I know what a big fan you are of libraries, so you may want to just take a drive down and check. There is good chance your local library might even have some of his other great books as well. I am curious to know what you think about On Writing Well. Let me know if you read it.

  13. I've been writing for some time now and I started writing for myself because I was so full from years of "wild" experiences (and insights I learned from nature) that I wrote simply to let the overflow drain off. I still write for myself but I now go back and cull out things that would slow a reader down (plus other editing), which I've grown to love doing. I love the whole process. I think good writing comes initially from inspiration or the heart and soul of us, but the really good writing comes from rewriting and rewriting...a bit like molding a peice of clay. I think many people hate that part of writing...luckily I LOVE it.

    The one place I allow myself more freedom in my writing is in emails and blogging. Because I'm so exacting while writing books, I like to be carefree in the rest.I allow myself that one luxury!! :) :) Typos and I'm sure you've noticed many times. (She laughs hysterically) :)

    I have never read this book and am going to order it this week. I am so glad you suggested it. I've heard of it but just never got around to reading it. Thanks my good friend. I apprecaite it. Rob.

  14. I recently asked the same question on my blog to writers. I've found in working with hundreds of writers that when a writer makes the shift from writing exclusively for themselves to considering their reader, their writing improves tenfold........

  15. This is a new classic for writing style.A wonderful article which a lot great information.
    I love it.

    Evodie Pierre


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