Wednesday, May 29, 2013

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Of all the books on writing that I have read - how to; how not to - there is one that I return to time and again: On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser.

Mr. Zinsser started his career writing for  newspapers, became an editor, taught writing at Yale in the 1970s, and for two years wrote an award-winning column on the arts for The American Scholar website. 

He has written 18 books covering jazz, memoir, travel, baseball, and songwriters. All that in addition to his lively treatises On Writing Well and On Writing to Learn.

I read recently in the New York Times that Mr. Zinsser has retired at the age of 90. He no longer goes to his office in Manhattan because, due to glaucoma, he can no longer see. So now, according to the article written by Dan Berry, he meets with writers one-on-one in his apartment and listens and counsels.

What cannot be read can be heard.

Mr. Zinsser is not a fan of pretentious, overwrought, cluttered writing. 

To wit:
Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Re-examine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it's beautiful?

Simplify, simplify.

I love this book. All the more because I met Mr. Zinsser in 1997 at a library event and he autographed my copy of the book's third edition. (I also have a copy of the second edition because one can never have enough copies of this book.) 

It was first published in 1976 and is still the cleanest, most direct book on writing I have read. Even if you are not a writer, you will be entertained as it is full of examples and quotes and witty admonitions. His guidelines will help you better compose even the simplest note. And make you a better reader for you will immediately spot gobble-de-gook. And we hate gobble-de-gook!

On Writing Well is a classic. 

Look for it. Buy it. Read it. It will be money and time well spent.


  1. Our library actually has this book so I put it on one of my lists to get later (I have too many checked out. I often do this and then if the book is something I want to own I buy it. I recently bought a book A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes & the Eternal Passion for Books (Nicholas A Basbanes)at Amazon. My hubby ordered something that came to 24.99. I had to get the free shipping, didn't I.

    1. Free shipping...absolutely! I read "A Gentle Madness" long ago. I think it was quite fun.

      I hope you do get to read and enjoy "On Writing Well". I have read it so many times that I feel Mr. Zinsser is always peering over my shoulder whispering 'simplify, simplify'.