how to write well

#29 – On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser

Principles of Writing


Writing is an exchange between writers and readers. Readers give writers their time and attention. What do writers give? Themselves. Their humanity and warmth, on top of clarity of language and thought.

Think of writing as an intimate exchange between the writer and the reader.


The enemies of good writing are clutter (unnecessary words) and inflation (the use of jargon and pretentious words to sound important).

“But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”

An example of a good, simple sentence from Walden:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

To avoid clutter, we need to think clearly. Writers must always ask: what am I trying to say?

It takes hard work to write simply and clearly.


Eliminate useless words. Examples: “up” in “free up” and “personal” in “personal friend”.

Replace “laborious phrases” with simple ones. Examples: “physicians” with “doctors” and “currently” with “now”.

“Clutter is the official language used by corporations to hide their mistakes… When an Air Force missile crashed, it “impacted with the ground prematurely.”… Companies that go belly-up have “a negative cash-flow position.”

“…every profession has its growing arsenal of jargon to throw dust in the eyes of the populace.”

“Beware, then, of the long word that’s no better than the short word: “assistance” (help), “numerous” (many), “facilitate” (ease), “individual” (man or woman), “remainder” (rest), “initial” (first), “implement” (do), “sufficient” (enough), “attempt” (try), “referred to as” (called) and hundreds more. ”

“Beware of all the slippery new fad words: paradigm and parameter, prioritize and potentialize. They are all weeds that will smother what you write. Don’t dialogue with someone you can talk to. Don’t interface with anybody.”

“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).”


A “fundamental rule” – be yourself.

To be yourself, you need to relax and be confident.

Thinking that your opinions do not matter is a huge mistake.

Don’t be afraid to write in the first person.

“Believe in your own identity and your own opinions.”

The Audience

A “fundamental question” – who am I writing for? The answer – yourself.

“You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for.”

Writing is both a mechanical and creative act. Mechanical – “Simplify, prune and strive for order.” Creative: “the expressing of who you are. Relax and say what you want to say.”.


Care deeply about words. Take time to find the right ones. Use a dictionary and a thesaurus.

Readers hear words in their inner ears. So choose words for their sounds. Rhythm and alliteration make reading more enjoyable.

“I write entirely by ear and read everything aloud before letting it go out into the world.”

Methods of Writing


Good writing is orderly and feels like a complete and pleasing whole.

Unity in pronoun, tense and mood.

“Therefore ask yourself some basic questions before you start. For example: “In what capacity am I going to address the reader?” (Reporter? Provider of information? Average man or woman?) “What pronoun and tense am I going to use?” “What style?” (Impersonal reportorial? Personal but formal? Personal and casual?) “What attitude am I going to take toward the material?” (Involved? Detached? Judgmental? Ironic? Amused?) “How much do I want to cover?” “What one point do I want to make?”

Avoid the definitiveness complex – when the writer feels like they must have the last word. Think small. Think one instead of three or five. Think about the one thing you want to leave in your reader’s mind.

The Lead and the Ending 

“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. ”

Example of a good lead: “I’ve often wondered what goes into a hot dog. Now I know and I wish I didn’t.”

How to end: “when you’re ready to stop, stop. If you have presented all the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the nearest exit.”

Bits and Pieces

Use active verbs – “Joe saw him” is strong. “He was seen by Joe” is weak.”

“Short is better than long” –  “Of the 701 words in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, a marvel of economy in itself, 505 are words of one syllable and 122 are words of two syllables.”

“Verbs are the most important of all your tools.” “Use precise verbs” – “resign” or “retire” instead of step down.

Adverbs – mostly unnecessary. “Don’t tell us that the radio blared loudly; “blare” connotes loudness. Don’t write that someone clenched his teeth tightly; there’s no other way to clench teeth.”

Adjectives – mostly unnecessary. Only use them to convey useful information, not decorative indulgence.

“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,” “rather,” “quite,” “very,” “too,” “pretty much,” “in a sense” and dozens more. They dilute your style and your persuasiveness.”

“Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.”

“The large point is one of authority. Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of the reader’s trust. Readers want a writer who believes in himself and in what he is saying. Don’t diminish that belief. Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.”

“Keep your paragraphs short. Writing is visual—it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain. Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, whereas a long chunk of type can discourage a reader from even starting to read.”

“Don’t annoy your readers by over-explaining—by telling them something they already know or can figure out. Try not to use words like “surprisingly,” “predictably” and “of course,” which put a value on a fact before the reader encounters the fact. Trust your material.”

Writing well means rewriting (“a lot of tinkering”). The tinkering includes: removing unnecessary words and phrases; replacing “a humdrum word with one that has more precision or color”; strengthening the transition between sentences and making sentences sound more rhythmic and pleasing.

“it was the rewriting, not the writing, that won the game.”

Mark Zuckerberg inspired me to start an nnual, personal project – read a non-fiction book every week and write about it. Subscribe to my newsletter.

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