On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

by William Zinsser

Paperback(30th Anniversary Edition)

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On Writing Well has been praised for its sound advice, its clarity and the warmth of its style. It is a book for everybody who wants to learn how to write or who needs to do some writing to get through the day, as almost everybody does in the age of e-mail and the Internet. Whether you want to write about people or places, science and technology, business, sports, the arts or about yourself in the increasingly popular memoir genre, On Writing Well offers you fundamental priciples as well as the insights of a distinguished writer and teacher. With more than a million copies sole, this volume has stood the test of time and remains a valuable resource for writers and would-be writers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060891541
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/05/2016
Edition description: 30th Anniversary Edition
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 14,186
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.76(d)
Age Range: 15 - 18 Years

About the Author

William Zinsser is a writer, editor and teacher. He began his career on the New York Herald Tribune and has since written regularly for leading magazines. During the 1970s he was master of Branford College at Yale. His 17 books, ranging from baseball to music to American travel, include the influential Writing to Learn and Writing About Your Life. He teaches at the New School in New York.

Read an Excerpt

On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition

The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
By William Zinsser

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 William Zinsser
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060891548

Chapter One

The Transaction

A school in Connecticut once held "a day devoted to the arts," and I was asked if I would come and talk about writing as a vocation. When I arrived I found that a second speaker had been invited -- Dr. Brock (as I'll call him), a surgeon who had recently begun to write and had sold some stories to magazines. He was going to talk about writing as an avocation. That made us a panel, and we sat down to face a crowd of students and teachers and parents, all eager to learn the secrets of our glamorous work.

Dr. Brock was dressed in a bright red jacket, looking vaguely bohemian, as authors are supposed to look, and the first question went to him. What was it like to be a writer?

He said it was tremendous fun. Coming home from an arduous day at the hospital, he would go straight to his yellow pad and write his tensions away. The words just flowed. It was easy. I then said that writing wasn't easy and wasn't fun. It was hard and lonely, and the words seldom just flowed.

Next Dr. Brock was asked if it was important to rewrite. Absolutely not, he said. "Let it all hang out," he told us, and whatever form the sentences take willreflect the writer at his most natural. I then said that rewriting is the essence of writing. I pointed out that professional writers rewrite their sentences over and over and then rewrite what they have rewritten.

"What do you do on days when it isn't going well?" Dr. Brock was asked. He said he just stopped writing and put the work aside for a day when it would go better. I then said that the professional writer must establish a daily schedule and stick to it. I said that writing is a craft, not an art, and that the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself. He is also going broke.

"What if you're feeling depressed or unhappy?" a student asked. "Won't that affect your writing?"

Probably it will, Dr. Brock replied. Go fishing. Take a walk. Probably it won't, I said. If your job is to write every day, you learn to do it like any other job.

A student asked if we found it useful to circulate in the literary world. Dr. Brock said he was greatly enjoying his new life as a man of letters, and he told several stories of being taken to lunch by his publisher and his agent at Manhattan restaurants where writers and editors gather. I said that professional writers are solitary drudges who seldom see other writers.

"Do you put symbolism in your writing?" a student asked me.

"Not if I can help it," I replied. I have an unbroken record of missing the deeper meaning in any story, play or movie, and as for dance and mime, I have never had any idea of what is being conveyed.

"I love symbols!" Dr. Brock exclaimed, and he described with gusto the joys of weaving them through his work.

So the morning went, and it was a revelation to all of us. At the end Dr. Brock told me he was enormously interested in my answers -- it had never occurred to him that writing could be hard. I told him I was just as interested in his answers -- it had never occurred to me that writing could be easy. Maybe I should take up surgery on the side.

As for the students, anyone might think we left them bewildered. But in fact we gave them a broader glimpse of the writing process than if only one of us had talked. For 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. Some people write by day, others by night. Some people need silence, others turn on the radio. Some write by hand, some by word processor, some by talking into a tape recorder. Some people write their first draft in one long burst and then revise; others can't write the second paragraph until they have fiddled endlessly with the first.

But all of them are vulnerable and all of them are tense. They are driven by a compulsion to put some part of themselves on paper, and yet they don't just write what comes naturally. They sit down to commit an act of literature, and the self who emerges on paper is far stiffer than the person who sat down to write. The problem is to find the real man or woman behind the tension.

Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is. I often find myself reading with interest about a topic I never thought would interest me -- some scientific quest, perhaps. What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field. How was he drawn into it? What emotional baggage did he bring along? How did it change his life? It's not necessary to want to spend a year alone at Walden Pond to become involved with a writer who did.

This is the personal transaction that's at the heart of good nonfiction writing. Out of it come two of the most important qualities that this book will go in search of humanity and warmth. Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it's not a question of gimmicks to "personalize" the author. It's a question of using the English language in a way that it will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.

Can such principles be taught? Maybe not. But most of them can be learned.


Excerpted from On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition by William Zinsser Copyright © 2006 by William Zinsser. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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On Writing Well 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 48 reviews.
LennonFan More than 1 year ago
I bought this book to help me write better English papers. I had no idea how many bad writing habits I needed to change!

By simply doing away with embellishments and choosing concise and energetic verbs dramatically boosted the quality of my college papers. There are many other suggestions too: organization, structure, diction, using a thesaurus--but I was amazed at how much better my papers read (and grades improved) just by changing those two things I mentioned at the outset.

What I discovered is that writing is a process and not an end to itself. Possibly the greatest writers would probably want to change their published works if they were able to. This just means that we are all changing, growing individuals.

As a reference/how-to book, it reads very easily. Using examples from well-established writers, William Zinsser drives home his ideas in illustrative ways that will leave you entertained and informed.

Highly recommended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
On Writing Well, by William Zinsser, is meant to compliment The Elements of Style by Stunk and White. In Zinsser¿s own words ¿The Elements of Style is a book of pointers and admonitions: do this, don¿t do that. What it didn¿t address was how to apply those principles to the various forms that nonfiction writing and journalism can take.¿ Although the book is organized in four parts, the content could really be summarized in two categories: · Writing principals, methods, and attitudes · Guidelines for specific forms of nonfiction, including travel, humor, business, sports, arts, memoirs, and family history. Subjects addressed include: rewriting, craft vs. art, humanity and warmth, clutter, simplicity, finding a style, clichés, rhythm, unity, tone, and attitude. All of these are covered with the insight of a successful writer having decades of experience. The author works some biographical information and experiences into the text, but the focus of the material is on writing well. Given that the first edition was in 1976, some of the examples and attitudes are dated, but they also add to the charm of the book. No recaps or exercises are included at the end of the chapters, but an index is provided for easy reference. As the subtitle indicates, the book is specifically directed at nonfiction writing, but many of the concepts also apply to fiction. With over a million copies sold, and in its thirtieth anniversary edition, much of the information has already been worked into other writing guides. As envisioned by Zinsser, On Writing Well compliments The Elements of Style. Together, they make a great combination.
whspatron More than 1 year ago
I'm always looking for books that are targeted towards writing on an advanced level since most books are for the high school crowd that need definitions on adverbs and essay outlines. Zinsser makes this book a fun read and it made me think more about my writing technique outside of boring "black and white" nonfiction technique. He gives a lot of great writing examples and since I know he's a teacher, a lot of the information he gives seems like the criteria he's looking for when grading a paper. This book has been a great guide for me.
engauge More than 1 year ago
Zinsser's text is a valuable tool in learning to be a better writer. As a student, I found this book to be influential and informative. I can identify with Zinsser's advice to rid writing of clutter; I have been doing this for years. I was skeptical about reading a book about writing well, primarily because I did not know what to expect other than boredom. I discovered quite the opposite; his tips, sections and demonstrative style were interesting throughout the text as well as easy to understand and apply in my own writing. I have implemented much of what Zinsser discusses in his book both in school and everyday life.
KarenMcGrath More than 1 year ago
This is written for non-fiction but as a fiction writer, I have found it invaluable. Zinsser's words stay the course. I highly recommend this for anyone considering a writing career.
Dfculver More than 1 year ago
This book is an excellent book for giving examples from his own writing of memoir, as well as tips and suggestions for how to keep your writing from being too wordy or generic. Zinsser writes to convey that simplicity is best and missing from most writing today. Authors should stand for their style, but not lose their audience in their wordiness.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a college student there is no doubt that every student should read this book. You will become a better writer if you read it. Zinsser not only writes on many topics and styles, but also gives interesting examples and demonstrates how you can apply his ideas into your own work. This book is a great book for any writer, from high school to retirement. His intellect and humor make a great combination and are reasons why this book is so easy to read and learn from. If you want to be a better writer, this book is for you.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book outlines the proper ways to write nonfiction. Zinsser stresses the importance of simplifying words and using words that one would normally. The point of writing is to express you and sell your topic this establishes a writing style. Zinsser states ¿The difference between an active verb style and a passive-verb style-in clarity and vigor-is the difference between life and death for a writer.¿ ¿He was seen running by Jane¿ is weaker than stating ¿Jane saw him run.¿ The latter is stronger and shorter. There is less confusion in a shorter precise sentence than a longer one. Zinsser states that most of the time writers write too much. It is clutter if you write ¿he screamed loudly.¿ If you scream it is loudly there is not reason to mention ¿loudly¿. Overall the book was written well and was useful.
wkl More than 1 year ago
I write fiction, but this book was still helpful.
BillA More than 1 year ago
I wish I had read this book years ago. It's very well-written, informative, and amusing. Don't miss it, if you have any idea or aspiration for writing.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful book for anyone interested in writing and publishing to read and enjoy. I just love it! I started reading this book during a journalism class. I learned more from the book than from the journalism teacher. Every story the teacher had a problem with, I had published in my original writing without changing one word. The editors of the newspapers publishing the stories also loved them. Additionally, the audience and readers of the articles are just elated and happy to read them. This book has really opened my eyes regarding the writing process, teachers, and editors. I have learned how to fight back and win! I have also picked up some sound advice on enjoyment and confidence, and how to deal with tyranny and fear. This is truly an inspirational book. It is easy to read. The chapters are not long. There is humor in the pages, and I truly enjoyed the learning experience. I will cherish it and read it again from time to time. Thank you William Zinsser!
Guest More than 1 year ago
In order to improve your grammar and writing skills, I recommend reading 'On Writing Well' by William Zinsser. The book highlights a variety of techniques in four parts. His writing style is very personal and his use of clarity makes the book a very easy read. Zinsser uses his own personal examples of what NOT to do as well as his own personal advice on how to improve each sentence that you write.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I don't know why this book is so relegated to nonfiction writers. Fiction writers will benefit greatly from Zinsser's guidance as well, to learn to focus their work, fix their grammar and dump all those adjectives that send their work to the slush piles! A must read for fiction writers too.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book helped me with my attempt to begin a short story. Zinsser assisted me through my thought process. I would recommend this book to all new writers like myself.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I first taught from this book in the early 80's, and the latest edition now serves students in my online course On Writing Well: A Composition Sampler. Zinsser inspires budding writers with snippets of great nonfiction to exemplify his no-nonsense instruction.
tyroeternal on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
On Writing Well is a simple guide for writing well. Thankfully, as a book about writing should be, it is written well. I found the advice to be accessible and ready to be applied.If you write (and you do) you should read this book.
ronjawdi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
After reading this, it is clear that Zinsser is well qualified to write such a difficult book. Writing is a "subjective experience". So to produce a how-to guide seems to be an unattainable task. Zinsser's years of experience pour through the pages leaving the impression that writing can be enjoyable and done well. I shall return to this book again and again!!!
tgraettinger on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Excellent book on writing and thinking about writing. Zinsser covers a wide breadth of topics, from writing memoirs, to writing about travel, to writing about sports, and more. He makes it very simple - write about people doing things, and write more like you speak than less. Good chapter on organizing a longer work as well.
kathleenmcgowan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Zinsser has produced an inspiring and practical manual in On Writing Well. My AP English teacher in high school recommended this book to me as a reference when I went to her asking how best to improve my own writing¿¿obviously, I aspired to publish. I particularly enjoy Zinsser's thoughts on modern memoirs.
wahmreader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My job requires me to be able to write well, and this book really helped me to hone my writing skills. Zinsser's advice and techniques are concrete and specific, and after applying his suggestions and theories to my own work, I improved my style tremendously.
soylentgreen23 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I've read some guides about how to write well, and they've always had such terrible advice and used such awful, vulgar examples (usually taken from their own genre fiction) that I had abandoned all hope. Ostensibly, Zinsser's book is about writing nonfiction, but it works well for every kind of writing, and is the best guide to writing I have ever read.
RosesAreRed on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was forced to purchase this book for a course I took, but I didn't sell it back. It was amusing and very informative.
bdayne on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Hands down, the best book I've ever read on the craft of writing non-fiction. A book I've owned for fifteen years, I still return to it; still find new things to learn from it. It never fails to inform and inspire.
jcopenha on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The best book on writing I've ever read. This book lightly touches on grammar, only to get it out of the way, and then is on to the act of writing. He focuses on the thought process of writing, what to write about, how to write about different subjects, and most importantly how to rewrite what you've just written. Everybody that writes, anything, should read the first section, titled "Principles". Those first fifty pages apply to all forms of writing and will serve you well. William Zinsser wrote in such an engaging style that I'll be adding at least two more of his books to my reading list. And because he talked about it so fondly I might even reread Walden, but that's a long shot.
marck on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Zinsser's writing is concise, clear, and entertaining -- which is a good thing, because those qualities are exactly what this book preaches. Through numerous examples from published (and unpublished) writings by Zinsser and others, he analyzes and demonstrates all the basic dos and don'ts of nonfiction writing. It's more than just basics; it's feel and muse and common sense too. The fact that this book has been in print so many years and updated so many times shows how timeless it is. Walk -- don't run -- through this book.