“On Writing Well” by William Zinsser – Part 1: Principles and Methods.

I always thought my writing was bulky, cluttered and full of sentences that are slightly too long to sound nice to native English readers. The long sentences are probably the heritage from my native Eastern European languages. They never particularly bothered me – they got the point communicated. But they did so without style and elegance. And I am even more aware of this after reading “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser.

“You will find writing hard, because it is hard.”

The idea to read this book started from the Reading Club at my work founded by my teammate Raul. I have to say, I am really glad I came across this book and here comes my review (if you are not interested in writing, you can skip this; but I warn you, it will be useful).

Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” is a practical guide to writing which covers everything starting from the content organization and going to details such as punctuation. Zinsser starts his guide with principles and methods and proceeds to different forms of writing – essentially, writing on different subjects such as technology, travel articles or business writing. This part will focus on Principles and Methods.

Principles

My teammate Raul masterfully connected the main principles of writing that Zinsser mentions in his book to Grice Maxims of communication which constitute Cooperative Principle. Essentially, Cooperative Principle is an assumption that everyone in the conversation cooperates to make the conversation relevant, honest and informative. This Principle includes four maxims – of Quantity, Quality, Relation, and Manner. In brief, these maxims would mean:

  • Manner – speak in a clear and straightforward language
  • Quantity – say as much information as needed and no more
  • Quality – say what you believe is the truth
  • Relation – say the information that is relative to be a response to what other said

Grice in his framework works mostly with conversations. Zinsser in his turn “transfers” Grice’s maxims into writing.

Simplicity

“The secret to good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest component”.

Zinsser recommends removing from your sentences all the words that have no function in it, replacing long words with shorter and simpler words or removing any adverb whose meaning is already conveyed in the main verb. For instance, words such as “personal”  or “experiencing”. “A personal feeling” means “his or “her” feeling or “he is experiencing pain” can be stripped to “he is in pain” –  the expression looks cleaner and means the same. A few more examples of cluttering words are “facilitate”, “individual”, “sufficient”, attempt”, “numerous” – all these words can be replaced with simpler counterparts and still mean the same. The simpler, the clearer – the clearer, the easier for the reader to process.

Style

Zinsser mentions that “there is no style store; style is organic to the person doing the writing; therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself”. Easy to say and hard to do, right?
Although for this principle Zinsser does not provide many practical suggestions, his main emphasis is on retaining humanity in your writing – thinking of writing as a transaction between two people, the writer and the reader, and deciding what you want to tell.

“Writing is an act of ego so believe in your own identity”.

Close to the topic of style comes the question of audience. Zinsser insists that the only person that you are writing for is “you” – so say what you have to say. Not every reader will like what you say, but you will be authentic to yourself.

“Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is”.

Words

For this principle, Zinsser encourages writers to be obsessive about the meaning and the choice of the words in their writing. Important is also to consider the feel of rhythm and sound – aliterate and find the words that sound well together when you read your piece either aloud or in your head.

In this section, I can also add a few more means that Zinsser mentions throughout the book:

  • Try using active verbs instead of passive verbs – the difference between those two is “clarity and vigor”. Active verbs also help us to visualize because they require a pronoun that performs them – “I”, “you”, “he”.
  • Avoid using adverbs – their meaning is often conveyed by verbs or adjectives they go with and they clutter your writing – some examples are “effortlessly easy”, or “slightly spartan.
  • Most adjectives are not necessary as well – their meaning is conveyed in the noun
  • Avoid “small” quantifiers such as “kind of”, “pretty much”, “too” and “rather” – those dimish the meaning of what you want to say. Do not say they you are “kind of confused”, say that you are confused. Be confident in what you are trying to convey.

A few notes on punctuation:

  • If the sentence comes out too long, it is probably time to split it in two – it is likely trying to express two dissimilar thoughts.
  • Use semicolon sparingly; mostly, to add a related thought to the first part of the sentence.
  • Use the dash to justify the first part of the sentence or use two dashes to insert a thought in the middle of the sentence.

Mood changes:

  • You should alert the reader when you change the mood from the previous sentence
  • Words that work for it are “however”, “yet” , “meanwhile”, “therefore”, “thus”
  • Put those as early as you can; it is also fine to start a sentence with some of them such as “yet” or “but”

Unity

Unity is a sign of good writing. Thus Zinsser has a few suggestions about different levels of unity in writing:

  • Keep the unity of tenses – do not switch constantly between present and past since this might confuse the reader and make them lose interest in your story
  • Keep the unity of mood – choose the tone and stick with it throughout your piece
  • Think small – focus on one idea rather than on two or three – this will help you to keep the unity in your writing

Organization

In the organization part, Zinsser focuses on the lead and the ending. The lead should grab reader’s attention from the beginning and force them to continue reading. The ending should take the reader by surprise and yet seem exactly right. When you see the words “in sum” emerging, this is the right spot to stop. It could be also worth echoing the lead in the ending – to give a store a sense of circularity. Another suggestion for the ending is a quotation that adds “a sense of finality” to the story.

***

I am glad that I came across “On Writing Well” by Zinsser. Although I might not apply all of his principles right away in my writing, I am now aware of my writing more than ever. I am aware that the words that I choose are the words that I am saying to the reader to keep them engaged and interested and to share a part of my identity.

“The man or woman snoozing in a chair with a magazine or a book is a person who was being given too much unnecessary trouble by the writer“.

Hopefully, when reading this review, you are not drifting away in your chair.

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