DBW Review: On Writing Well by William Zinsser

I’m always on the lookout for great writing resources. After seeing On Writing Well praised by several authors I respect, I knew I had to take a read through it.

On Writing WellOn Writing Well was first published in 1976, and it continues to be a popular guide for writing non-fiction. This book has been updated and republished several times. I reviewed the 30th anniversary edition, which includes an additional chapter on writing family history and memoir.

Author William Zinsser is a journalist and non-fiction writer who has taught writing for many years. He brings his teaching experience to life in this book, which is divided into four sections: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes.

Under Principles, he discusses how to make your writing clear and simple and connect effectively with your audience.

The Methods section contains short segments dealing with specific concerns, such as creating a good lead and making your writing more active.

The largest section of the book is Forms, where he provides advice on how to write different types of non-fiction: interviews, travel articles, memoirs, science and technology articles, business documents, sports reports, arts criticism, and humour.

The final section, Attitudes, takes a look at how writers should approach the writing process.

What I Liked

What I liked most about this book is Zinsser’s writing style. His voice is warm, knowledgeable, and witty. There were several places in the book where he made me laugh out loud. This is a smooth read that welcomes the reader in and provides useful advice. Zinsser states that his “four articles of faith” in writing are clarity, simplicity, brevity, and humanity (p. 171). He certainly practices what he preaches within the pages of this book.

Here’s one of his passages that made me laugh:

Today as many as four or five concept nouns will attach themselves to each other, like a molecule chain. Here’s a brilliant specimen I recently found: “Communication facilitation skills development intervention.” Not a person in sight, or a working verb. I think it’s a program to help students write better. (p. 76)

I found Zinsser’s emphasis on the human element in non-fiction writing persuasive and refreshing. A lot of other how-to books describe the technical details of writing but don’t connect these with the personal interests of both the writer and the audience. He tells stories from his years of writing and teaching to explain his principles, and provides substantial text samples from different writers to illustrate his points. All of these things helped me absorb the advice that he provides.

The section about the different forms of non-fiction writing was enlightening. I found myself intrigued by all the content, even on topics that I would never write about, like sports. Zinsser walks you through each type of writing and provides helpful examples that show how his writing principles apply.

One quote in particular sticks with me: “Writing is not a special language owned by the English teacher. Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all.” (p. 147)

What Could Be Better

If you’re looking for a book that goes into detail on writing technique, this is not the resource for you. Zinsser states in his introduction that he sees this book as a complement to a work like The Elements of Style, and not something to replace it. He does include short segments of writing advice in a chapter called “Bits & Pieces,” but these segments feel scattered because he does do not go into enough depth. I felt that this chapter should have been either expanded or removed.

As you might expect from a book that is over 35 years old, some of the samples and related observations are a bit dated. It would have been interesting to see his principles being applied to more current writers. This is a small quibble, however, and is counterbalanced by the fascinating historical detail that permeates his writing.

In modern resource books, it’s common to have checklists or pages that summarize the key points. These are missing here. I would have loved to have these kinds of takeaways included in the book.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Connection

Since this book is focused on non-fiction, I wasn’t expecting to find much in the way of sci-fi/fantasy content. I do feel that his advice on writing is general enough that it can be applied to any genre.

There were a couple of sci-fi references in this book that I found amusing, especially because they are used to illustrate negative writing habits. One example is when Zinsser talks about writing bad leads:

Speaking of everybody else’s lead, there are many categories I’ll be glad never to see again. One is the future archaeologist: “When some future archaeologist stumbles on the remains of our civilization, what will he make of the jukebox?” I’m tired of him already and he’s not even here. (p. 59)

Zinsser also talks about corporate jargon being “language out of Star Trek” (p.175). I found this point surprising because I don’t tend to think of sci-fi references as jargon. That’s because it’s my jargon. (It’s amazing how blind we can be to our own biases.)

Verdict

I can see why this book has retained its popularity. This was an absorbing read that provided encouragement, entertainment, and helpful information. Any writer, whether they specialize in fiction or non-fiction, will find this a useful read. I was impressed enough by this work that I am planning on reading another of Zinsser’s books, Writing About Your Life. We’ll see how it measures up!

***

If you’ve read this book, what did you think of it? Do you have any other book recommendations for writers of non-fiction? Which non-fiction forms do you write, and what do you find the most challenging about them?

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23 thoughts on “DBW Review: On Writing Well by William Zinsser

    1. You’re welcome, Brenna. I find I’ve learned a lot about non-fiction writing from fiction resources, too. Great non-fiction needs to tell a compelling story, so the thought processes tend to overlap for me.

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    1. It’s amazing how many fiction writing books there are compared to non-fiction ones. At least it feels that way. It was nice to read a non-fiction guide that wasn’t boring and full of corporate-speak. And I’d love to see what you would do in non-fiction! Based on what I see on your blog, I have no doubt it would be fantastic.

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      1. Thank you for your kind words. I’ve considered a nonfiction book on the topic of obesity, particularly as it relates to public health and the multiple determinants behind it since that is my professional interest, but writing fiction is just so much fun. (But I do deal with the theme of obesity in my most recent novel that I’m shopping around, so that’s a start. 🙂 )

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      2. That’s a great start. Sometimes I think we learn more through fiction than non-fiction, since it’s easier to find emotional resonance with a theme. Looking forward to reading that book when it comes out. 🙂

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    1. Hi, D.G.! Thanks for reading and commenting on my post. It’s great to hear that this book was a big help to you. I’m curious – as a writer of memoirs, have you read his other book on writing about your life?

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  1. Sue, you nailed my one concern with this book, and that was the lack of current writing examples. As writing–and the genres in writing–have grown organically, I was left wondering whether Zinsser’s advice would be applicable today. Glad to hear you still find it worthy. It’s on my list.
    And although most of my writing guides are secured solidly within the shelves of fiction help, I do have one book (I’ve not finished entirely) that I’ve found to be an interesting read. It’s not genre oriented, but rather problem oriented–motivation-wise. It’s called Help! for Writers by Roy Peter Clark. Thus far, a good investment of time and money.
    Grand review, Sue. I’ll check out the book. Cheers!

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