Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” reads like the author took his own advice; it’s short, memorable, and filled with examples of good writing from a zoo of different authors. It took me only around 4-5 hours to read, but someone who already writes well could take much longer to absorb the examples. Below are a few highlights:
“Clutter is the disease of American writing.” (p7)
One of the best parts of William Zinsser’s “On Writing” is on pages 9-11, where he shows the a roughly-edited draft of his own chapter. Seeing the author’s editing reveals that (a) even a major author benefits from editing, and (b) just how can be cut without the reader noticing the lack. When it comes to writing style, his statement that you must cut down to bone, and then rebuild, seems apt.
“[the lead] must cajole him with freshness or novelty or paradox, or with humor, or with surprise, or with an unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question. Anything will do along as it nudges his curiosity and tugs at his sleeve.” (p60)
The stuffy format of the academic paper typically leads with a highly-condensed version of the findings, research method, and limitations. It’s hard to liven up a format so deadly-structured, but the list of possible openers above is as good as any.
“We are most of us still prisoners of the lesson pounded into us by the composition teachers of our youth: that every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end… This is all right for elementary and high school students… But if you are going to write good non-fiction, you must wriggle out of [part] III’s dead grip….
“The perfect ending should take the reader slightly be surprise and yet seem exactly right to him. He didn’t expect the article to end so soon, or so abruptly, or to say what is said. But he knows it when he sees it. Like a good lead, it works.” (p70-71)