On Writing Well by William Zinsser (Part 1)


William Zinsser is such a discerning writer, I wish I had sat in his class. Please read this brilliant tribute to the doyen of non-Fiction:  http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/tuesday-with-zinsser.

Reading his  best selling book On Writing is a privilege. I’ve read it before, but it’s different to read him now, which goes to show how rereading a book is more of a joy than reading it for the first time.

In case you want to read blog posts by Zinsser, you might find this an interesting resource: https://theamericanscholar.org/the-complete-zinsser-on-friday/#.VWgahdKqqko

If you are a writer, you may have heard how hard it is to be a writer. You appreciate it when people know your pain. But you may also hear the hard to digest ” Anyone can write”.

Writing a facebook post doesn’t mean you can write, you say.

It also means that everyone’s doing it and everyone’s writing.

So can everyone write? Mass literacy means that everyone does write, but is it easy to do? You still believe what you do is unique.

Why aren’t writers paid well enough? Because anyone can do it.

The crux of the argument is a heavy one, much debated. On the one hand, you have freelancers who are paid very  little indeed for writing and on the other hand you have content mill owners who argue that writers don’t create anything new and so need to be happy with the fact that they are allowed to compete at all.

But  can anyone write? I haven’t forgotten that this post is dedicated to Zinsser. Zinsser believes that writing is really hard and no fun at all. It’s a craft that’s hard to teach. Anyone who wants to write and is willing can write.


Zinsser says to strip the sentence off all its adulterants—if you can do that 50% of your writing is cleared up straight away. To do this, you need to think clearly.  Verbal camouflage shows cluttered decision making—think government memos and ambivalent political speeches.

Ever since I’ve been reading Zinsser, I’ve noticed his immense vocabulary. He tells us to us to be obsessive about thesaurus and it’s true, isn’t that what every writer should be obsessed about?

Zinsser knows the cliches, the lack of logic and dull phrases that constitute badly written non-fiction. You may know that a passage is badly written, but he knows exactly why the story has been written by a hack.

For instance badly written non-fiction will have no unity. The pronouns will be all over the place. Past tense is followed by present tense. The travel story turns into a brochure. To know how to write well, you have to know where you are going wrong as well.

In Part 2, we look at the essence of Zinsser’s book- how to write about places, art, science, business and sport. This book is every writer’s bible. Read it, admire and learn.

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