Sometimes books about how to do something are dull. They sound like instruction manuals. You read them out of necessity not joy.
But books about writing are different. Presumably—well, hopefully—the author can write well and will take you on an entertaining journey. Of course, if you start reading a book about writing and it isn’t pleasurable, put it down. If the author can’t create a healthy flow for the reader, how can he or she teach you to do so?
That isn’t a problem with William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, which was originally published in 1976, but has been consistently updated. I recommend the 30th Anniversary Edition. Reading Zinsser’s treatise is like chatting with the writer, editor, and teacher about a subject he is passionate about. And that is what good writing is.
Sometimes writers like to show off their education and all the big words they can incorporate into their prose. They find a commonly used word, scoff at its simplicity, reach for the thesaurus, and replace it with a word that requires the reader to reach for a dictionary. That doesn’t work.
The writer must write for the reader, but also from himself or herself. What does that mean? It means that if you try to be someone you’re not, nobody will want to listen to you. That is as true in writing as it is in person. So let your personality define your style, but remember that you are communicating to someone. If you want your reader to understand the ideas, stories, or feelings you express, you must use language that they can read and will want to read.
Writing is the Key to Success
No matter how you want to succeed, you must express yourself in writing. Sure, there are the occasional exceptions, but even if find one, don’t you want to be able to speak through the written word?
The fact is that whether you are an attorney drafting a brief to persuade a court or an investor crafting an email to a seller of a business with great potential, communicating through writing matters. And if you can’t do it well, you may lose.
Writing well commands both credibility and respect. If you send drivel to your readers, they will think that is what you are. They won’t take you seriously.
Maybe you are already a good writer, or even a great writer? Does that mean you should skip over the rest of this blog post, in favor of another one—maybe our post on learning negotiation skills? Or peruse our list of book recommendations?
No. The best writers recognize that no matter how good they are now, they must improve. They constantly hone their craft and look for ways to communicate more effectively. They take joy in bettering their writing.
In addition, sometimes improvement comes from “top of mind,” meaning that reading a book on writing will naturally lead to you to think about your writing as you are writing. And when you do that, you will knowingly try to improve. Becoming a better writer is more than just applying specific techniques; it is thinking about your writing when you write. Consciously applying the techniques you already know—like removing clutter—or even just considering whether you can frame a sentence, a paragraph, or an entire work more clearly.
Writing, by the way, isn't just to communicate with others. You should practice it to develop your own thinking, through thinking by writing.
Why You Should Read “On Writing Well”
This is a book that has stood the test of time. I read On Writing Well for the first time when the professor assigned it to a freshman English class. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it and I never forgot it. I found the 30th Anniversary Edition and read it again—from the perspective of a career full of writing. It was even better the second time around because I now have appreciation for how important good writing is to, well, everything.
When I was a college freshman, I quickly skimmed chapters like “Science and Technology,” as I was planning a career in law and I didn’t think I’d need to understand how to write about science. Well, I’ve developed a career in law and I appreciated this chapter even more because I know understand that it is less about merely “science and technology” and more about writing simply about complex subjects. And that is something that anyone that becomes an expert on anything should know how to do, especially a lawyer.
Zinsser divides his book into four different Parts. The first part goes over “Principles” of writing. These are the most technical sections—seven chapters divided into (1) The transaction; (2) Simplicity; (3) Clutter; (4) Style; (5) The Audience; (6) Words; and (7) Usage. But even these chapters are less technique and more approach.
His conversational writing style extends to his teaching and, as you might expect, from the chapter names in this Part, the writing Zinsser teaches is simplicity rather than pomposity.
In the next part—Methods—Zinsser discusses Unity, the Lead and the Ending, and what he calls, “Bits & Pieces.” The Bits & Pieces chapter discusses everything from adverbs to punctuation to trusting your material. It is not a list of does and don’ts, but, instead, he explains each of the concepts as one would explain the many possibilities for using various types of tools.
In Zinsser’s third part, he describes the various forms of non-fiction writing, including, for example, nonfiction as literature, business writing, and humor. Even though some of these chapters may not seem applicable to you, I urge you to read them all as aspects of each of them may inform your writing, no matter what the form.
The last part of the book is called “Attitudes.” Here, Zinsser describes, really, what he has learned as a writer over the years. When you read these chapters, you will understand that they could only have been created by someone with great experience as a writer. Zinsser tells stories about writing and somehow mixes in some important lessons.
Some of the chapter names will give you an idea of what he is trying to do—“the sound of your voice,” “the tyranny of the final product,” “write as well as you can.”
No matter your talent level, you will become a better writer by reading this book. I highly recommend it. If you aren’t sure, pick up a chapter and start reading. You will soon see that it isn’t a chore; it is a joy.
If you found this article useful, please share it with friends by using the buttons below.