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.
Here’s some of the best advice from the book. Keep in mind next time you write — and the quality of your output will be greatly improved.
The best writers write, every single day
A professional writer must establish a daily schedule and stick to it. Writing is a craft, not an art, and that the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself. If your job is to write every day, you learn to do it like any other job.
Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.―Stephen King
The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what — these are the common adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.
The solution to simplify is to clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing. Writers must therefore constantly ask: What am I trying to say? Then they must look at what they have written and ask: have I said it?
Examine every word that you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that doesn’t serve any purpose.
Clutter is the official language used by corporations to hide their mistakes. E.g. When Digital Equipment Corporation eliminated 3,000 jobs its statement didn’t mention layoffs; those were “involuntary methodologies.” When an Air Force missile crashed, it “impacted the ground prematurely”. Dentist saying — “If you are experiencing any pain?” vs. “does it hurt?”
Be aware of the long word that’s no better than the short word. “assistance” (help), “numerous” (many), “remainder” (rest), “attempt” (try) and hundreds more. Be aware of all the slippery new fad words.
“It is interesting to note”, “It should be pointed out”, “I might add”. If you might add, add it. Don’t inflate what needs no inflating: “with the possible exception of” (except), “due to the fact that” (because), “for the purpose of” (for).
Is there any way to recognize clutter at a glance?
Here are some examples: the unnecessary preposition appended to a verb (“order up”), or the adverb that carries the same meaning as the verb (“smile happily”), or the adjective that states a known fact (“tall skyscraper”).
Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information. Look for sentences that essentially repeats what the previous sentence said or something that the readers don’t need to know or can figure out for themselves.
If you give me an eight-page article and I tell you to cut it to four pages, you’ll howl and say it can’t be done. Then you’ll go home and do it, and it will be much better. After that comes the hard part: cutting it to three.
The best writers aren’t afraid of showing their emotions
Be yourself. Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Relax.
No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader. –Robert Frost
Writers are obviously at their most natural when they write in the first person. Writing is an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper.
Even when “I” isn’t permitted (e.g. writing news), it’s possible to convey a sense of I-ness. Write the first draft in the first person, and then take the “I” out.
Believe in your identity and your opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.
Who am I writing for?
You’re writing for yourself.
Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. Every reader is a different person. If it amuses you in the act of writing, put it in.
You’re writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain readers who are worth writing for.
You are who you are, the readers are who they are, and either you’ll get along or you won’t.
Choice of words
Bear in mind, when you’re choosing words and stringing them together, how they sound. Readers read with their eyes. But in fact, they hear what they are reading far more than you realize.
Make a habit of reading what is being written today and what was written by earlier masters. Writing is learned by imitation. If anyone asked me how I learned to write, I’d say I learn by reading the men and women who were doing the kind of writing that I wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it.
I write entirely by ear and read everything aloud before letting it go out in the world.
Good usage is using words if they already exist — as they almost always do — to express clearly and simply.
Unity in writing
Unity of pronoun: Are you going to write in the first person, as a participant, or in the third person, as an observer?
Unity of tense: Most people mainly write in the past tense, but some people write agreeably in the present. What is not agreeable is to switch back and forth. You can use more than one tense, but the whole purpose of tenses is to enable a writer to deal with time.
Unity of mood: You might want to talk to the reader in the casual voice that The New Yorker has strenuously refined. Or you might want to approach the reader with a certain formality to describe a serious event. Both tones are acceptable but don’t mix two or three.
Every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before. Not two thoughts, or five — just one. Some points are best made by earnestness, some by dry understatement, some by humor.
The lead and the ending
The hardest decision about any article is how to begin it. The most important sentence in any article is the first one. Readers want to know — very soon — what’s in it for them.
Therefore your lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading. It must cajole him with freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humor, or surprise, or with an unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question.
Next, the lead must do some real work. It must provide hard details that tell the reader why the piece was written and why he ought to read it. Every paragraph should amplify the one that preceded it. Take special care with the last sentence of each paragraph — it’s the crucial springboard to the next paragraph.
The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right. For the nonfiction writer, if you have presented all the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the nearest exit. But what usually works best is a quotation.
Something I often do in my writing is to bring the story full circle — to strike at the end an echo of a note that was sounded at the beginning.
My commodity as a writer, whatever I’m writing about, is me. And your commodity is you. Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject.
Write with respect for the English language — and for readers. If you’re smitten by the urge to try the breezy style to achieve a casual style, read what you’ve written aloud and see if you like the sound of your voice.
Never hesitate to imitate another writer. Imitation is part of the creative process for anyone learning an art or a craft. Find the best writers in the fields that interest you and read their work aloud. Get their voice and their taster into your ear — their attitude toward language.
Don’t worry that by imitating them you’ll lose your voice and identity. By reading other writers you plug yourself into a long tradition that enriches you.
Writing is related to character. If your values are sound, your writing will be sound. Figure out what you want to do and how you want to do it, and work your way with humanity and integrity to the completed article. Then you’ll have something to sell.
Rewriting is the essence of writing. Professional writers rewrite their sentences over and over and then rewrite what they have rewritten.
Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time or even the third time.