William K. Zinsser - On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

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On Writing Well - A Comprehensive Guide to Writing Nonfiction

Feb 17, 2006 (Updated Mar 1, 2006)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:An essential guide to the art and craft of writing creative nonfiction.

Cons:Some topics may seem basic too experienced writers.

The Bottom Line: A strong overview of the creative nonfiction genre.


Introduction...

First published thirty years ago in 1976, William Zinsser's On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction has become a staple in the field of creative nonfiction. Zinsser, a notable author and teacher, wrote his book as a result of teaching some of the first creative nonfiction courses in America in the early 1970s.

Like Sol Stein's On Writing, Zinsser crafted On Writing Well to help writers at any level to become stronger writers - "My purpose is not to teach good nonfiction or good journalism, but to teach good English that can be put to those uses, or to any uses. Don't assume that bad English can still be good journalism, or good business writing, or good technical writing, or good travel writing, or good sports writing. It can't. Good English is your passport to wherever you need to go in your writing, your work and your life. All the writers I've quoted in this book are vastly different in personality and style. But all of them write good English. You can, too" (Zinsser, xi).

But unlike Stein, who in his book explored the genres of both fiction and nonfiction, in On Writing Well Zinsser chooses to deal with just the subgenres of nonfiction. To this end, On Writing Well is separated into four distinct parts:

Part I: Principles
Part II: Methods
Part III: Forms
Part IV: Attitudes

Each part is divided into distinct chapters that cover various aspects related to the part's topic. It allows writers to focus in on the distinct parts that interests them the most, as well as to make it easier for those who are revisiting the work. Zinsser illustrates all of his concepts with relevant examples and quotes from his own work as well as the work from other creative nonfiction authors. Zinsser's writing is always clear and as such even his most complex topics are easy to understand.


On the Parts that make up the whole...

Part I: Principles...

In Chapter 1: The Transaction Zinsser discusses various approaches to the craft of writing, illustrating two very distinct points of view - that of writing as an easy, carefree lifestyle - and that of writing as being a demanding craft that requires patience, practice and hard work. The nice thing about Zinsser's opening illustration is that he shows us the ideas through a humorous recollection of a panel discussion he was involved in. Ultimately Zinsser uses the illustration to argue that "...there isn't any 'right' way to do such personal work. There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of methods, and any method that helps you to say what you want to say is the right method for you" (5).

In Chapter 2: Simplicity, Zinsser discusses limiting clutter in writing, noting how "Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon... Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important... But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that's already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what - these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank" (7). The chapter then presents ways of eliminating clutter. Zinsser nicely illustrates the topic by giving us an actual photocopied extract of his own writing, complete with all the crossed out words, notes and various other edits he made while crafting On Writing Well. Zinsser concludes by noting that "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" (12).

With Chapter 3: Clutter Zinsser continues his discussion on simplicity by providing us with ways to limit clutter, noting that "Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds - the writer is always slightly behind... Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn't be there... Examine every word you put on paper. You'll find a surprising number that don't serve any purpose" (13). Zinsser's illustrations are again very humorous, and George Carlin's rant on euphemisms quickly came to mind while reading this chapter.

In Chapter 4: Style Zinsser tackles the difficult topic of finding personal style early on in his work. He compares writing to building a house. In short he asks – if we won't let anyone without knowledge and experience build our house, why wouldn’t we approach writing in the same manner?

With Chapter 5: The Audience, Zinsser throws out the traditional answers to the question of "Who am I writing for?" (25) by stating that "It's a fundamental question, and it has a fundamental answer: You are writing for yourself. Don't try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience - every reader is a diffeent person. Don't try to guess what sort of thing editors want to publish or what you think the country is in a mood to read. Editors and readers don't know what they want to read until they read it. Besides they're always looking for something new" (25). In many ways the chapter further develops the ideas that were presented in Chapter 4: Style, as Zinsser discusses the importance of mastering the tools of writing as well as being yourself when you write, to "Relax and say what you want to say" (26).

In Chapter 6: Words Zinsser cuts to the heart of good writing, noting how "You'll never make your mark as a writer unless you develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive. The English language is rich in strong and supple words. Take the time to root around and find the ones you want" (33). Zinsser then discusses how to avoid structural fatigue, laziness of logic and cliches. He encourages the regular use of a good dictionary, as well as a dictionary of synonyms and a thesaurus. He also believes regularly reviewing Strunk & White's The Elements of Style - a resource that no writer should be without.

In Chapter 7: Usage Zinsser continues his discussion regarding the careful choice of words by emphasizing the importance of understanding a word's usage. "Incorrect usage will lose you the readers you would most like to win. Know the difference between a 'reference' and an 'allusion,' between 'connive' and 'conspire,' between 'comare with' and 'compare to.' If you must 'comprise,' use it right. It means 'include'; dinner comprises meat, potatoes, salad and dessert" (43). For Zinsser, "Good usage... consists of using good words if they already exist - as they almost always do - to express myself clearly and simply to someone else" (46).

Part II: Methods...

Part II: Methods is a fairly short section with three short chapters dealing with very specific topics that are universal to all forms of writing. It's a very useful section, but part of me wonders why some these discussions couldn't have been brought up in earlier or later sections of the book. Chapters 8 and 9 could have easily been included in Part I, and a lot of the discussions that take place in Chapter 10 could have been included in chapters 6 and 7, with the discussion on rewriting being its own concluding chapter to Part I. Nonetheless, in spite of my grievances in how the topics are laid out, all of the information in this section is useful and worth reading.

In Chapter 8: Unity Zinsser discusses how "Unity is the anchor of good writing... Unity not only keeps the reader from straggling off in all directions; it satisfies the readers' subconscious need for order and reassures them that all is well at the helm" (50). The chapter explores a number of ways in which authors can achieve unity in their writing, from unity of pronoun to unity of tense as well as unity of mood.

Chapter 9: The Lead and the Ending Zinsser spends a short amount of time discussing how writers can effectively start and finish their pieces, ensuring that they hook readers into wanting to read about what they have to say. In reading this chapter, I couldn’t help but feel that Zinsser could have spent more time on this important topic, as Sol Stein did in his work On Writing. However, with this chapter Zinsser does continue to build on his theme that good writing will always help save the day.

With Chapter 10: Bits & Pieces, Zinsser dives into dealing with a number of "...scraps and morsels - small admonitions on many points that I have collected under one, as they say, umbrella" (68). Here, Zinsser deals with the use of verbs, adverbs, adjectives, qualifiers, punctuation, transitions, contractions, paragraphs, sexism, and credibility, rewriting as well as some of the ways writers view the craft of writing. Most of the discussions flow fine but I feel that the discussion on rewriting could have been worked into its own distinct chapter. Also, the discussions on the use of verbs, adverbs, paragraphs etc. could have been worked into the earlier chapters on usage and words.

Part III: Forms...

Part III: Forms is the longest and most in-depth section of Zinsser's book, covering the main sub-genres of the nonfiction world.

Zinsser opens this part with Chapter 11: Nonfiction as Literature opens with a very useful discussion on whether or not the nonfiction genres qualify as literature. For Zinsser, many writers and authors are still "caught in a time warp, where literature by definition still consists of forms that were certified as 'literary' in the 19th century: novels and short stories and poems. But in fact the great preponderance of what writers now write and sell, what book and magazine publishers publish and what readers demand is nonfiction" (97). He also notes how his "...roster of the new literature of nonfiction, in short, would include all the writers who come bearing information and who present it with vigor, clarity and humanity" (99). So nonfiction can be viewed as literature.

With Chapter 12: Writing About People - The Interview, Zinsser starts in what seems to be an odd place, discussing how writers can go about conducting the difficult primary research technique of interviewing subjects one on one. I note that it seems odd but as one continues with On Writing Well they discover that many of the subsequent topics build upon the topics introduced in this key chapter.

Chapter 13: Writing About Places - The Travel Article deals with just that, the travel article. Among other tips, Zinsser reminds writers to stick to revealing only significant details - "...don't tell us that the sea had waves and the sand was white. Find details that are significant. They may be important to your narrative; they may be unusual, or colorful, or comic, or entertaining. But make sure they do useful work" (119).

In Chapter 14: Writing About Yourself - the Memoir Zinsser explores how "Of all the subjects available to you as a writer, the one you know best is yourself: your past and your present, your thoughts and your emotions. Yet it's probably the subject you try hardest to avoid" (133). Zinsser appropriately discusses ways in which writers can effectively move past those fears, to create work that reflects the individuality we all have within us.

Chapter 15: Science and Technology moves past the personal and into the impersonal, reminding us however that writers should always bring themselves to the table in their work. In the chapter Zinsser notes how you can take a class of writers and ask them to explore a scientific topic, and they shriek in fear. On the reverse, one can ask a scientist to write about their work and they also shriek in fear. However, he notes how Both are unnecessary fears to lug through life... 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. Science, demystified, is just another nonfiction subject. Writing, demystified, is just another way for scientists to transmit what they know" (149). And of course, Zinsser provides interesting anecdotes and examples to illustrate how both scientists and writers can approach the subject of nonfiction writing and describing a process (how something works) "...forces you to make sure you know how it works. It forces you to take the reader through the same sequence of ideas and deductions that made the process clear..." (150).

With Chapter 16: Business Writing - Writing in Your Job Zinsser explores how the topics in his book "...apply to everyone who is expected to do some writing as part of his or her daily employment. The memo, the business letter, the administrative report, the financial analysis, the marketing proposal, the note to the boss, the fax, the e-mail, the Post-it - all the pieces of paper that circulate through your office every day are forms of writing. Take them seriously. Countless careers rise or fall on the ability or the inability of employees to state a set of facts, summarize a meeting or present an idea coherently" (167).

Chapter 17: Sports deals with nonfiction writing as related to sports and Zinsser effectively shows us how to throw out tired clichés by replacing them with writing that is sharp, clear, crisp and original. A lot of the discussions and ideas that were developed in Chapters 15 and 16 weave through Chapter 17.

Chapter 18: Writing About the Arts - Critics and Columnists provides a discussion on effective criticism, on writing about the arts around us - be it "...acting, dancing, painting, writing poetry, playing an instrument..." (195) - and I found Zinsser's distinction between a reviewer and a critic to be very helpful in my own journeys here at Epinions.com. He notes, "Reviewers wirte for a newspaper or popular magazine, and what they cover is primarily an industry - the output of, for instance, the television industry, the motion-picture industry... As a reviewer your job is more to report than to make an aesthetic judgement..." (196), whereas ...critics should like - or, better still, love - the medium they are reviewing. If you think movies are dumb, don't write about them. The reader deserves a movie buff who will bring along a reservoir of knowledge, passion and prejudice. It's not necessary for the critic to like every film: criticism is only one person's opinion. But he should go to every movie wanting to like it" (196). Again, like every chapter Zinsser writes, this chapter is extremely insightful and useful for all writers.

Chapter 19: Humor shows us how "Humor is the secret weapon of the nonfiction writer. It's secret because so few writers realize that humor is often their best tool - and sometimes their only tool - for making an important point" (208). Through many examples the chapter provides a nice bookend to Part III and its on the travel piece; the memoir; as well as writing about science and technology, business, sports and the arts.

Part IV: Attitudes...

Part IV: Attitudes is Zinsser's final area of discussion, dealving into a number of important topics that surround the entire subject of writing well.

With Chapter 20: The Sound of Your Voice Zinsser eloquently tackles and explains how writers can effectively find their own unique storytelling voice through the effective use of language.

In Chapter 21: Enjoyment, Fear and Confidence Zinsser takes us on a fairly personal journey, discussing how he got into writing as a career. He relates to us how his life parallels that of most writers and provides an interesting meditation on the writing process.

Chapter 22: The Tyranny of the Final Product explores the importance of learning, growing, developing confidence and dealing with failure. Zinsser discusses how he developed an entire course around these topics which he admits "aren't given... respect because they can't be given a grade" (256). In the end, Zinsser eases worries many students have about selling their work by noting that "If the process is sound, the product will take care of itself, and sales are likely to follow" (256).

Chpater 23: A Writer's Decisions begins to summarize some of Zinsser's important discussions, noting how "This has been a book about decisions - the countless successive decisions that go into every act of writing. Some of the decisions are big ("What should I write about?") and some are as small as the smallest word. But all of them are important. The previous chapter was about big decisions: matters of shape, structure, compression, focus and intention. This chapter is about little decisions: " With this chapter, Zinsser takes us through an article he wrote, and explains to us the many thoughts, questions and decisions that Zinsser grappled with as he wrote the piece.

Finally, Zinsser reiterates his primary thesis of On Writing Well with Chapter 24: Write as Well as You Can, where he notes "Writing well means believing in your writing and believing in yourself, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel. You will write only as well as you make yourself write" (293).

On Writing Well also features a very useful "Sources" section, which serves as a sort of works cited list, referencing where Zinsser found the quotes that were used in his book. In addition, there is a very useful index of terms, authors and works.


Conclusion...

Many books and articles focussing on the craft of creative nonfiction quote William Zinsser's work "On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction" as well as "Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir." But one final quote summarizes Zinsser very nicely, "...good wirting can appear anywhere, even in the lowly newspaper, and... what matters is the writing itself, not the medium where it's published. Therefore I've always tried to write as well as I could by my own standards; I've never changed my style to fit the size or presumed education of the audience I was writing for... Besides wanting to write as well as possible, I wanted to write as entertainingly as possible. When I tell aspiring that they should think of themselves as part entertainer, they don't like to hear it - the word smacks of carnivals and jugglers and clowns. But to succeed you must make your piece jump out of a newspaper or a magazine by being more diverting than everyone else's piece. You must find some way to elevate your act of writing into an entertainment" (288). And even though my own personal writing isn't always entertaining, I know it's improving. I also know that my writing will take a huge leap forward having immersed myself in William Zinsser's On Writing Well.

Grade: A

(c) February 17, 2006, Steven H. Lee

Note: This review details the "Sixth Edition - Revised and Updated" of On Writing Well as published in 1998. In 2001, a "25th Anniversary Edition" of this book was released and although it makes no claims as being revised or updated, upon examination, this edition does appear to contain the same text as the "Sixth Edition." Also, according to Amazon.ca and Amazon.com, in late April / early May, 2006 a "30th Anniversary Edition" will be released. It's listed as being 320 pages, which is the same page count as the "25th Anniversary" edition.


Read More On Writing...

Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller & Suzanne Paola (New!)

a million little pieces: a memoir by James Frey

On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies by Sol Stein


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