Review: On Writing Well

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.

on writing wellOne of the biggest parts of being a knowledge worker is knowing how to communicate that knowledge well to others. This is true for everyone from the CEO down to the low-level office staff, from programmers to marketers – in other words, for a large portion of the people in the first world today.

I confess that a sizeable chunk of any basic nonfiction writing talent I have came from reading and re-reading and practicing the stuff found in On Writing Well. I had a stained used-book-store copy of this in high school, where I used the ideas inside and practiced them in my journals (I’ve kept a daily journal since January 1, 1991 – at the age of twelve – and there’s some seriously crazy stuff in there). Another copy got me through college, and yet another one has since fallen into my hands. The little techniques I use to crank out so much writing (and the stuff here is far from the total amount of writing I do) largely came from this book.

But just like some of my other favorite personal development books (Getting Things Done and Never Eat Alone immediately spring to mind), On Writing Well seems pretty useless unless you actually sit down and apply this stuff to your life over and over again. Only after repeated uses do you begin to see the little pieces begin to crank together like an engine of sorts, a mental driver that takes the ideas in your head and commits them to paper.

Let’s dig in, shall we?

A Look At On Writing Well

Part I – Principles

1. The Transaction
Most people view writing as a task or as merely a presentation of ideas. The truth is that writing actually goes much deeper than that, and it’s why I’ll often read articles in The New Yorker about subjects I’d never seek out. Great writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, is an expression of the author, and an author’s passion and excitement and connection to the subject comes through in the writing. The transaction between writer and reader is the sharing of this passion, and it is that passion that will keep a reader reading.

2. Simplicity
If you take nothing else from this book, take this: most writing is full of unnecessary words and those extra words make it harder and less enjoyable to read. I often fall victim to this, especially when writing for The Simple Dollar – I’ll write a phrase with too many words in it and the idea I’m trying to present becomes less clear.

3. Clutter
If you read through something for someone else and are getting bored and bogged down in the writing, try noting in some fashion (I often use the color tool in Word) as many words and phrases as possible while letting the basic idea shine through. You can also apply this to your own writing, but I find that doing it immediately after writing something is hard to do. The key is to get rid of clutter and unnecessary words that do nothing but distract the reader.

4. Style
“But if I eliminate so many words, how will I have any style?” The author uses the analogy of writing as woodworking – if you make all sorts of fanciful designs in the board but fail to nail it together well or cut the boards to the right shape, you wind up with pretty junk. The goal of stripping the writing down to the bare essentials is to make sure that what you’re saying actually gets across – in other words, ensuring that you’ve cut the boards right and are nailing it together well. A few elements of style can serve as elegant finishing to the piece, but the structure needs to be firmly built before you even start with stylistic elements.

5. The Audience
Another crucial basic factor is who you are writing for. Over and over again, I’ve found it useful for me to actually spend some time thinking about who my audience is with a particular piece of writing and describing that audience in detail. How old are they? What are their interests? Once I have that, what pieces of the item I’m writing about can I focus on to keep this piece interesting to them? Doing this can often take an average piece and really make it zing.

6. Words
One sure way to ensure that your writing is boring is to use the same words everyone else uses. This chapter uses a brilliant example from a newspaper to show how even the most exciting event can be made boring by using boring words. How can you avoid this? Try expanding your vocabulary regularly and using these words in conversation – if you see it in print more than once, you should learn it and be willing to use it. Use a dictionary and a thesaurus as well to play with word choices in sentences.

7. Usage
This chapter is essentially a very, very tight compression of the book Words That Work – word choice makes all the difference. Some words make you look cheap, while others make you look educated. Some words come off as friendly, others aggressive. What tone do you want to set? I felt this topic was covered too briefly here, so if you find On Writing Well a useful tool (and I do), I’d really recommend Words That Work as a supplement.

Part II – Methods

8. Unity
Unity is an area of writing where a single-author blog can really excel – I think it’s the one area where blog writing can blow away most things in the traditional publishing world. Unity refers to a consistency in the writing – a consistent voice, a consistent use of language, and so on. Such consistency means that your reader is in tune with you. For example, the perspective of The Simple Dollar is pretty clear to anyone who digs around in the archives for a while – personal finance and development talk from a twentysomething who has recently escaped debt. The entire blog is united behind this simple topic. Because it’s written by a single writer (and I use the same conversational tone all the time), it also has a great deal of unity of language. Thus, there’s a sense of familiarity for regular readers. Zinsser says this very thing in this chapter, but actually just applies it to a newspaper writer who is responsible for two or three pieces a day.

9. The Lead and the Ending
One of the most personally influential books I’ve ever read in my life was Ogilvy on Advertising, which says that there’s one key point anyone who writes to attract an audience needs to remember: each sentence sells the reader on continuing on to the next one. Ogilvy was talking about ad copy, but that idea is true for any kind of writing. What does that mean, though? The first sentence in anything you write is the most important one, because it gets the reader to read the next one. And the more the person reads, the more of your idea that the reader gets. The ending mostly just serves to leave the reader with your biggest point in their back pocket.

10. Bits and Pieces
This chapter is basically just a long selection of very short bits on various aspects of writing. The most important one? Write what you love. I mean this dead seriously – write about the things that you enjoy the most and the passion will come right out. My advice to anyone out there who wants to improve their writing is to start a blog on that topic and commit to writing something daily. If you’re really passionate, you’ll find no end to things to write about, and it will be a constant way to improve your writing. Don’t know how to get started? I wrote a guide to help out.

Part III – Forms

11. Nonfiction as Literature
Many people think of writing as composing some great work of fictional literature, like writing the Great American Novel. Don’t. Nonfiction has just as much power to provoke thought and move the human spirit as fiction does. I’ve found that among the books that have profoundly shaken my life, there’s a roughly equal mix of fiction and nonfiction (of the ten books I named that changed my life, just three were fiction, but if I expanded that list to fifty or so, the split would be pretty close to even).

12. Writing About People: The Interview
The rest of this third part of On Writing Well focuses on techniques for specific types of writing, starting off with the art of writing about people and how to interview them. The advice includes not using a tape recorder (unless you’re doing a transcript), instead focusing on jotting down general things and only getting specific quotes exactly right. Another tip: after you’ve finished the interview and have pages full of scribbled notes, type them up immediately into some sort of neat form. I found that this was incredibly useful for me to do when I was in college, especially in humanities courses.

13. Writing About Places: The Travel Article
The real magic in writing about places is to find details that illustrate the bigger picture – and use only as many details as you need. The chapter gives a lot of little examples of this, where five or six details strung together paint a bigger picture and somehow your mind just fills in the other details, even though they’re not explicitly described. Great travel writing enables you to visualize a place in rich detail – boring travel writing just lists the things you can do there.

14. Writing About Yourself: The Memoir
Interestingly, the tips for writing a memoir are much the same as writing about travel: focus on the details that together spell out a bigger picture. Focus on specific scenes and describe them in detail, scenes that as they’re played out illustrate some truth about your life. Don’t focus on dry listings of facts – instead, focus on painting in details on those things of greatest importance, as those are the ones that will be remembered. Spend ten pages on a life-changing conversation, but don’t worry about listing a big pile of relatives.

15. Science and Technology
Many writers balk at writing about science and technology out of fear and a lack of understanding of the topic, but science for a general audience is actually easy. Just isolate one central fact (probably the most interesting one), explain how it’s new and set it apart from what’s already known, and relate that fact to everyday life – or at least to things that an average reader might care about.

16. Business Writing: Writing in Your Job
When you’re writing for work, keep one thing in mind: how does this piece of writing improve the bottom line of the company? Every sentence you write should follow this narrative. This is true for any business that you might be a part of – how does this piece of writing improve my bottom line?

17. Sports
Zinsser argues here that many sportswriters are lazy, using a large pile of tried-and-true cliches to make their writing seem vibrant, but in actuality it’s dry and boring. The best sports writing kicks all the walls down and goes back to that basic framework, telling exactly what happened in clear terms, and combines elements of the interview and the travelogue to create a clear picture of both the place and the people involved.

18. Writing About The Arts: Critics and Columnists
I have to agree with Zinsser’s perspective here as well: the best writing about the arts is one that forms a clear opinion and doesn’t water it down with evasion and escape. If you finish up (or even include) phrases like “time will tell” or “it remains to be seen” or “on the other hand” when discussing a work of art, you’re essentially destroying your own piece. Art is about emotion and being wishy-washy isn’t an emotion at all.

19. Humor
The best humor is usually just a heightening of the truth. In fact, if you want to be a humor writer, Zinsser basically recommends taking a piece of real writing that you consider indicative of a social trend and just amplify it to comic proportions. This is actually the source of much humorous writing – at its core, it’s merely a retelling of something that is true with a few of the elements thrown out of proportion.

Part IV – Attitudes

20. The Sound of Your Voice
Perhaps the best single piece of advice in the entire book appears in this chapter: if you want to know if the way you’re writing sounds any good, read the entire thing aloud and see if it sounds right to you. If it doesn’t, something is off – good text should flow well when read aloud. Try reading a paragraph aloud of anything you’ve written, then use that as the basis for self-editing. You’ll often find that it improves the writing.

21. Enjoyment, Fear and Confidence
Most writers of nonfiction fear their topics, at least to some degree. They’re afraid of getting an assignment on a subject they don’t understand or – even worse – selecting a topic themselves and butchering it. Ditch that fear. Instead, know what specific things you’re good at (which of your articles have been proclaimed to be the best? Why is that?) and focus on things that maximize your strengths, even if you don’t necessarily know the topic. The best situation, actually, is a topic that excites you but that you don’t know a lot about – you can enjoy yourself along the way. The only way to build confidence in writing about many topics is… to write about many topics.

22. The Tyranny of the Final Product
If you’re sitting there visualizing your final article in the pages of Sports Illustrated or The New Yorker and it’s so clear that you can almost smell the ink and see the typeface, then the article is likely going to be terrible. Instead, start from the opposite end, with just the vague germ of an idea, and build it from there. It’s that central idea that readers are after, not this grand vision of a layout in The Atlantic.

23. A Writer’s Decisions
This is basically a workshop chapter where Zinsser moves through the writing process with a small piece of his own. It basically highlights some of the lessons from earlier chapters and provides some insight into how they’re used in actually molding a piece from a basic idea into a finished article.

24. Write as Well as You Can
The book closes with this truism, one that very few people actually follow. When you turn in a piece of written work, make sure it is the best possible piece of writing that you can turn out. Your writing, when in print, will represent you to others and anything less than your best effort paints a worse picture of you. Give a piece of writing your love and time and it will always reward you.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

I spend a good portion of my “professional” time – at work and on the internet – writing. The tips in this book, almost without exception, are home runs, and if you really take them to heart and practice them, they’ll pay off for you over and over again. The key is to practice them, though – just reading this book won’t really help much at all.

If you write – at all – read this book and apply some of the wonderful material inside. It’s excellent from beginning to end, and your writing (a representation of you) will benefit greatly in the long run.

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  1. FIRE Finance says:

    Great review. We shall go for this book!

  2. Wow, thanks for this summary of the contents of the book. As a reflection I think its also important as a reader to keep some of these elements in mind as you read. Number five particularly stands out. Sometimes you get to read things that weren’t directed to you (forwarded emails, etc) and you need to keep that in mind before you get upset or confused.

  3. Jeremy says:

    Hi Trent,

    That’s a great summary of many of the parts of the book. Someday I’ll get around to the book itself, for now your summary has provided another kick in the head of what to (and what not to) do when writing.

  4. J.D. says:

    This is one of the books that I read repeatedly. I apply its principles constantly. In fact, I’ve used them three times while writing this comment. (Most notably, “again and again” became “repeatedly”.)

    It’s been too long since I read On Writing Well, and I can tell that my writing has begun to suffer for it…

  5. Emily says:

    I was assigned to read this book before senior year’s AP Language & Composition…and after years of required summer reading, it’s the one I still find to be the most useful.

  6. I’m reading this one right now, and I have a lot to learn. I love that it’s an “easy read”. I was surprised to find that it wasn’t a dry textbook-like read.

  7. Kenny says:

    Oh, I had to read this book in college! What a fun walk down memory lane.

    Some people will always believe that the longer it is, the better it is, but really, it’s the skill of the short sentence that packs a bigger punch.

    Oh, and use more commas!

  8. Grace says:

    You’ve only been journaling since age 12? I’ve got you beat. I started in fourth grade. Looking back, I state clearly (if ungrammatically)that I want to become a “techer and tech redding and writing.”

    This book was one of the best on “redding and writing,” if not spelling.

  9. Madame X says:

    I had to read this for a non-fiction writing class in college, and you’re right, it’s a classic, and I should probably be re-reading it!

    ps. you’ve been tagged:
    http://www.myopenwallet.net/2007/09/frugal-subversive.html

  10. Faisca says:

    I’ve never had to read this for any school classes, but I picked it up the other day because I heard about it somewhere. Along with The Elements of Style, this is supposed to be the writer’s Bible.

    I haven’t cracked it open yet, but I’m itching to. I just have too many other things to read first. Argh.

  11. sfgal says:

    That’s a classic book on writing and a wonderful gem. It’s helped me craft stories when I’m suck with writer’s block.

    I’d also like to suggest another good book “writing tools: 50 essential strategies for every writer” by Roy Peter Clark. It’s an all-purpose book that teaches simple and easy to use techniques such as tucking in the weaker elements into the middle of the sentence. The techniques can be used in writing reports, emails and letters. Roy Peter Clark who teaches at the Poynter Institute is a legend in journalism for his wonderful writing tips.

    His columns updated weekly I think are good supplements in addition to the book – http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=78&aid=129389

  12. Al says:

    Great review! You have a way with words.

  13. David Szpunar says:

    Thank you for the excellent review. I’m sure I have this book tucked away somewhere (if not, library here I come!). My wife and I are moving into our new house this weekend but I’ll have to remember to dig it out very soon and finish it, because I believe I only got started years ago (likely when I was close to twelve myself!).

    Thanks for the reminder! I’m writing enough now (between blog and school) that it should come in very handy! And your review was a good overview of things to work on.

  14. taitong says:

    Hi Trent,

    I’m glad you reviewed this book concisely, for this is one of my favorite books on writing.

    However, the summary for chapter 5: The audience completely misrepresents the point Zinsser was making.

    ” ‘Who am I writing for?’ is a fundamental question,” says Zinsser, “and it has a fundamental answer: You are writing for yourself.”

    I wanted to point out that Zinsser does not believe in an audience the way you have mentioned in your review, but you are right, in that a suitable definition of the audience should be between what Zinsser believes, and what goes on in mainstream blogs nowadays: writing for a specific audience.

  15. As a composer of music, I find this review and the outline of the book fascinating and practical. What a great resource for a writer.

  16. Iris Hood says:

    Trent,
    Thanks for featuring On Writing Well. I just got my hands on a copy and plan to start reading today.
    Have a good one,
    Iris

  17. typome says:

    Thanks for reviewing this book! I just placed a hold for it in my library. All this writing talk has inspired me to start a writing blog. =)

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