On Writing Well is a book about the craft of putting words on paper. Fittingly, it also happens to be very well written and is an absolute pleasure to read. Becoming a better writer pays out dividends throughout your professional and personal life. Writing is more than just a presentation of ideas — it’s a transaction between the writer and the reader involving sharing of a passion, and it is that passion that will keep a reader reading. In this review, I’ll share my top seven learnings along with favorite quotes from this book.
First and foremost, if you take nothing else from this book, take this:
Most writing is full of unnecessary words and those extra words make it harder and less enjoyable to read.
Get rid of clutter and unnecessary words that do nothing but distract the reader. The goal of stripping the writing down to the bare essentials is to make sure that what you’re saying actually gets across. Don’t inflate what needs no inflating: “with the possible exception of” (except), “due to the fact that” (because), “he totally lacked the ability to” (he couldn’t), “until such time as” (until), “for the purpose of” (for). Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.
Second, once you take care of the clutter, make sure you have a good lead:
The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the lead.
Third, and this is one of my favorite lessons from the book: avoid nouns and use verbs to make the writing more active. Just say what the subject did. Avoid passive voice as much as possible.
Nouns that express a concept are commonly used in bad writing instead of verbs that tell what somebody did. Here are three typical dead sentences: The common reaction is incredulous laughter. Bemused cynicism isn’t the only response to the old system. The current campus hostility is a symptom of the change.
Fourth, make your writing personal, and if nothing, just write for yourself. Force yourself to write a certain number of words every day or week. I have been following this one with these book reviews, and you may have observed how I’ve kept the writing both personal and regular, primarily for an audience of one.
Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going. You learn to write by writing. It’s a truism, but what makes it a truism is that it’s true. The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.
Fifth, rewriting is the essence of writing. The word processors were a boon for great writers and a bane for the bad ones. On the one hand, they made it easy to write and rewrite until the writing was great, but on the other, they made it all too easy for bad writers to create clutter.
You won’t write well until you understand that writing is an evolving process, not a finished product. Nobody expects you to get it right the first time, or even the second time. Rewriting is the essence of writing. I pointed out that professional writers rewrite their sentences over and over and then rewrite what they have rewritten.
Sixth, clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. This forms the basis of William Zinsser’s other book, Writing to Learn that I’ll review next week.
Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they don’t know. Then they must look at what they have written and ask: have I said it?
Seventh, understand the value and importance of good writing and recognize that it’s hard work.
Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.
And finally, “The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right.”
This is #26 in a series of book reviews published weekly on this site.