Bits & Pieces on Sharpening your Writing
On Writing Well by William Zinsser is an excellent book for anybody who wants to learn how to write, whether about people or places, science and technology, business, sports, or about yourself.
This is an article of scraps and morsels on many points to sharpen your writing — collected from On Writing Well book.
I originally collected Zinsser’s great advice to sharpen my writing and wanted to share this article as it’s useful to others as well. I give those to you now and highly recommend that you get the book. But if you’ve only seven minutes, read this instead.
Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb.
For example, “Joe saw him” is strong. “He is seen by Joe” is weak. The first is short and precise; it leaves no doubt about who did what. The second is necessarily longer and ambiguous: something was done by somebody to someone else.
Active verbs enable us to visualize an activity because they require a pronoun (“she”), or a noun (“the boy”), or a person (“Mrs. Scott”) to put them in motion.
Don’t choose active verbs that are dull or merely serviceable. Make active verbs activate your sentences. Don’t say that the president of the company stepped down. Did he resign? Did he retire? Did he get fired? Be precise. Use precise verbs.
Don’t use adverbs unless they do necessary work.
Most adverbs are unnecessary. You will annoy the reader if you choose a verb that has a specific meaning and then add an adverb that carries the same meaning. “the radio blared loudly”; “blare” connotes loudness.
In careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs. So are the adjectives and other parts of speech: “effortlessly easy”, “totally flabbergasted.” Can you picture someone being partly flabbergasted?
Most adjectives are also unnecessary. For example, adjectives denoting the color of an object whose color is well known: yellow daffodils and brownish dirt. So, use adjectives when they do a job that the noun alone wouldn’t be doing.
The rule is simple: make your adjectives do work that needs to be done. “He looked at the gray sky and the black clouds and decided to sail back to the harbor.” The darkness of the sky and the clouds is the reason for the decision.
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”, “pretty much”, “very”, “too”, “in a sense” and dozen more. They dilute your style and your persuasiveness.
Don’t say you were a bit confused and a little depressed and sort of tired. Good writing is lean and confident. Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.
Don’t say you weren’t too happy because the hotel was pretty expensive. Say you weren’t happy because the hotel was expensive.
“Very” is a useful word to achieve emphasis, but far more often it’s a clutter. There is no need to call someone very methodical. Either he is methodical or he isn’t.
The Period. If you find yourself hopelessly mired in a long sentence, it’s probably because you’re trying to make the sentence do more than it can reasonably do — perhaps express two dissimilar thoughts. The quickest way out is to break the long sentence into two short sentences, or even three.
The Exclamation Point. Don’t use it unless you must achieve a certain effect. Instead, construct your sentence so that the order of the words will put the emphasis where you want it.
Also, resist using an exclamation point to notify the reader that you are making a joke or being ironic. “It never occurred to me that the water pistol might be loaded!” Humor is best achieved by understatement, and there’s nothing subtle about an exclamation point.
The Semicolon. It should be used sparingly by writers of nonfiction. Use it to add a related thought to the first half of a sentence. Still, the semicolon brings the reader, if not to a halt, at least to a pause. So use it with discretion, and rely instead on the period and the dash.
The Dash. The dash is used in two ways. One is to amplify or justify in 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 thought within a longer sentence. “She told me to get in the car — she had been after me all summer to have a haircut — and we drove silently into town.” An explanatory detail that might otherwise have required a separate sentence.
The Colon. The colon serves the role of bringing your sentence to a brief halt before you plunge into, say an itemized list. “The brochure said the ship would stop at the following ports: Oran, Naples, Istanbul, and Beirut.”
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”, “now”, “later”, “today”, “subsequently”, and several more.
If you were taught that no sentence should begin with “but” — unlearn it — there’s no stronger word at the start. If you need relief from too many sentences beginning with “but,” switch to “however.” It is, however, a weaker word and needs careful placement. Don’t start a sentence with “however”, and don’t end with “however” — by that time it has lost its howeverness.
“Yet” does almost the same job as “but,” though its meaning is close to “nevertheless.”
As for “meanwhile”, “now”, “today” and “later,” what they also save is confusion, for careless writers often change their time frame without remembering to tip the reader off. “Today you can’t find such an item”. “Later I found out why”.
Always ask yourself where you left your readers in the previous sentence.
Contractions like “I’ll”, “won’t”, and “can’t” fit comfortably into what you’re writing and there’s no rule against such informality. Avoid one form of contractions: “I’d”, “he’d”, “we’d”, etc. — because “I’d” can mean “I had” and “I would.” Also, don’t invent contractions like “could’ve.” Stick with the ones you can find in the dictionary.
THAT AND WHICH.
Always use “that” unless it makes your meaning ambiguous. In most situations, “that” is what you would naturally say and there what you should write.
If your sentence needs a comma to achieve its precise meaning, it probably needs “which.” (A) “Take the shoes that are in the closest.” (B) “Take the shoes, which are in the closest”. Only one pair of shoes is under discussion; the “which” usage tells where they are.
Nouns that express a concept are commonly used in bad writing instead of verbs that tell what somebody did.
“The current campus hostility is a symptom of the change.” The reader can’t visualize anybody performing some activity; all the meaning lies in impersonal nouns that embody a vague concept: “hostility”. Turn this cold sentence around. “It’s easy to notice the change — you can see how angry all the students are.”
Keep your paragraphs short. Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting. But don’t go berserk. A succession of tiny paragraphs is as annoying as a paragraph that’s too long.
One of the most vexing questions for writers is what to about sexist language, especially the “he-she” pronoun.
A thornier problem is raised by the feminists’ annoyance with words that contain “man”, such as “chairman”. Hence the flurry of new words like “chairperson.” One solution is to find another term: “chair” for “chairman,” look for a generic substitute. Actors and actresses can become performers.
“he”, “him”, “his” could be eliminated by switching to plurals. But this is good only in small doses because they are less specific than the singular, less easy to visualize.
Another common solution is to use “or”: “he” or “she.” To turn every “he” into a “he or she,” and every “his” into a “his or her,” would clog the language.
The best solutions simply eliminate “he” and its connotations of male ownership by using other pronouns. “We” is a handy replacement for “he.” “Our” and “the” can often replace “his.”
One other pronoun that helps is “you.” Always look for ways to make yourself available to the people you’re trying to reach.
Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost. That idea is hard to accept. You won’t write it well until you understand that writing is an evolving process, not a finished product.
Most writers don’t initially say what they want to say or say it as well as they could. The newly hatched sentence almost always has something wrong with it. It’s not clear. It’s not logical. It’s verbose. It’s boring. It’s full of clutter. It lacks rhythm. It doesn’t lead out of the previous sentence. The point is that clear writing is the result of a lot of tinkering.
Most rewriting consists of reshaping and tightening and refining the raw material you wrote on your first draft. Much of it consists of making sure you’ve given the reader a narrative flow he can follow with no trouble from beginning to end.
If you would like to write better than everybody else, you have to want to write better than everybody else. You must take an obsessive pride in the smallest details of your craftWilliam Zinsser, On Writing Well