The following advice comes from William Zinsser’s book “On Writing Well.” It’s probably my favorite book about writing, and I wanted to share what I learned with you. All quotes can be attributed to Zinsser unless otherwise noted.
1. Great writing is the product of many rewrites.
“The essence of writing is rewriting.”
2. Use the method of writing that works best for you.
“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.”
3. Your best writing tool is the enthusiasm you have for what you’re writing about.
“What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field.”
4. Good writing keeps the reader reading.
“Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next”
5. Avoid clutter.
“Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”
6. Don’t inflate your writing.
“Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important.”
7. Clean your writing. Strip it down into clean components.
“the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”
8. Avoid words that serve no function.
“Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.”
9. Clear thinking leads to clear writing. Understand what you’re writing about.
“Clear thinking becomes clear writing”
10. The reader doesn’t have a large attention span. Earn their attention, and earn it quickly.
“The reader is someone with an attention span of about 30 seconds—a person assailed by many forces competing for attention.”
11. When writing, ask yourself what you’re trying to say.
“Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they don’t know.”
12. Writing is work.
“Writing is hard work.”
13. Great sentences require iteration.
“Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.”
14. Your writing improves as you weed out things that shouldn’t be there.
“Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.”
15. Examine every word.
“Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose.”
16. For every long word you use, there is usually a short word that works.
“Beware, then, of the long word that’s no better than the short word: “assistance” (help), “numerous” (many), “facilitate” (ease), “individual” (man or woman), “remainder” (rest), “initial” (first), “implement” (do), “sufficient” (enough), “attempt” (try), “referred to as” (called) and hundreds more.”
17. You can probably cut your 1st draft by 50%.
“Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.”
18. Prune your writing.
“Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly.”
19. Be self aware. Your writing is worse than you think.
“Few people realize how badly they write.”
20. Strip your writing down before you build it up.
“you have to strip your writing down before you can build it back up.”
21. Write in the 1st person.
“Writing is an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper, and it will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity. Therefore I urge people to write in the first person: to use “I” and “me” and “we” and “us.” They put up a fight.”
22. Convey a sense of “I.” Let the reader know you are there.
“Good writers are visible just behind their words.”
23. Own your identify and your opinions.
“Leaders who bob and weave like aging boxers don’t inspire confidence—or deserve it. The same thing is true of writers. Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions.”
24. Ask yourself who you’re writing for. Hint: It’s yourself.
“‘Who am I writing for?’ It’s a fundamental question, and it has a fundamental answer: You are writing for yourself.”
25. Write for yourself first.
“You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for.”
26. Write like you talk.
“Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. If you’re not a person who says “indeed” or “moreover,” or who calls someone an individual (“he’s a fine individual”), please don’t write it.”
27. Find your words.
“The English language is rich in strong and supple words. Take the time to root around and find the ones you want.”
28. Care about your words.
“care deeply about words.”
29. Writing is learned by imitation.
“Make a habit of reading what is being written today and what was written by earlier masters. Writing is learned by imitation. If anyone asked me how I learned to write, I’d say I learned by reading the men and women who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it.”
30. Be mindful of how your writing sounds. Rhythm matters.
“bear in mind, when you’re choosing words and stringing them together, how they sound. This may seem absurd: readers read with their eyes. But in fact they hear what they are reading far more than you realize.”
31. Writers must be part poet.
“Good writers of prose must be part poet, always listening to what they write.”
32. Know the power of the short sentence.
“An occasional short sentence can carry a tremendous punch. It stays in the reader’s ear.”
33. Practice, practice, practice.
“You learn to write by writing.”
34. Write consistently. Don’t just practice, but practice consistently.
“The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.”
35. Ask yourself questions before you start writing.
“ask yourself some basic questions before you start. For example: “In what capacity am I going to address the reader?” (Reporter? Provider of information? Average man or woman?) “What pronoun and tense am I going to use?” “What style?” (Impersonal reportorial? Personal but formal? Personal and casual?) “What attitude am I going to take toward the material?” (Involved? Detached? Judgmental? Ironic? Amused?) “How much do I want to cover?” “What one point do I want to make?””
36. Start small.
“Every writing project must be reduced before you start to write. Therefore think small. Decide what corner of your subject you’re going to bite off, and be content to cover it well and stop.”
37. Leave the reader with something they didn’t know or think about before.
“every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before.”
38. Don’t become a prisoner to your plans.
“Don’t become the prisoner of a preconceived plan. Writing is no respecter of blueprints.”
39. Make the reader smile.
“Make the reader smile and you’ve got him for at least one more paragraph.”
40. Tell a story.
“narrative is the oldest and most compelling method of holding someone’s attention; everybody wants to be told a story.”
41. Know when to end.
“Knowing when to end an article is far more important than most writers realize. You should give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did to your first.”
42. Leave the reader on a high note.
“The positive reason for ending well is that a good last sentence—or last paragraph—is a joy in itself. It gives the reader a lift, and it lingers when the article is over.”
43. Don’t overdo it. When you’re done, be done.
“when you’re ready to stop, stop. If you have presented all the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the nearest exit.”
44. Surprises are refreshing and delightful.
“Surprise is the most refreshing element in nonfiction writing. If something surprises you it will also surprise—and delight—the people you are writing for”
45. Use active verbs. They give your writing vitality.
“Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb. The difference between an activeverb style and a passive-verb style—in clarity and vigor—is the difference between life and death for a writer. “Joe saw him” is strong. “He was seen by Joe” is weak.”
46. Adverbs are generally not needed.
“Most adverbs are unnecessary.”
47. Adjectives are also generally not needed.
“Most adjectives are also unnecessary.”
48. Don’t be redundant.
“Don’t write that someone clenched his teeth tightly; there’s no other way to clench teeth.”
49. Adjectives are often burdensome for the reader.
“The adjective that exists solely as decoration is a self-indulgence for the writer and a burden for the reader.”
50. Believe in your writing and in your ability to write.
“Writing well means believing in your writing and believing in yourself, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel. You will write only as well as you make yourself write.”
51. Be confident, be lean.
“Good writing is lean and confident.”
52. Don’t be timid. Be bold.
“Readers want a writer who believes in himself and in what he is saying. Don’t diminish that belief. Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.”
53. Long sentences often are trying to do too much.
“If you find yourself hopelessly mired in a long sentence, it’s probably because you’re trying to make the sentence do more than it can reasonably do”
54. “But” emphasizes contrast.
“Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with “but.” If that’s what you learned, unlearn it—there’s no stronger word at the start. It announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is thereby primed for the change.”
55. Orient your readers. Don’t let them get lost.
“Always make sure your readers are oriented. Always ask yourself where you left them in the previous sentence.”
56. Don’t BS the reader. It’ll make your whole writing stink.
“If the reader catches you in just one bogus statement that you are trying to pass off as true, everything you write thereafter will be suspect.”
57. Writing isn’t a contest.
“Forget the competition and go at your own pace. Your only contest is with yourself.”
58. If you have a problem, just get rid of it.
“Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it.”
59. When you run into trouble, ask yourself if you need the element.
“When you find yourself at such an impasse, look at the troublesome element and ask, “Do I need it at all?” Probably you don’t.”
60. Writing is visual. Keep your paragraphs short.
“Keep your paragraphs short. Writing is visual—it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain. Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, whereas a long chunk of type can discourage a reader from even starting to read.”
61. Avoid rattling off short paragraphs.
“But don’t go berserk. A succession of tiny paragraphs is as annoying as a paragraph that’s too long.”
62. Learn to think in paragraphs instead of sentences.
“Study good nonfiction writers to see how they do it. You’ll find that almost all of them think in paragraph units, not in sentence units.”
63. Tinker with your writing to make it clear.
“clear writing is the result of a lot of tinkering.”
64. Read your writing to make sure it flows.
“Read your article aloud from beginning to end, always remembering where you left the reader in the previous sentence.”
65. Don’t over-explain or tell your readers something they already no.
“Don’t annoy your readers by over-explaining—by telling them something they already know or can figure out.”
66. You can write about anything.
“There’s no subject you don’t have permission to write about.”
67. Write about what interests you.
“If you follow your affections you will write well and will engage your readers.”
68. Writing strengthens your thinking.
“Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all.”
69. Again, write like you talk.
There is a kind of writing that sounds so relaxed that you think you hear the author talking to you.
70. Learn from great writers.
“Find the best writers in the fields that interest you and read their work aloud. Get their voice and their taste into your ear”
71. Write about things you want to learn about.
“Living is the trick. Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That’s almost the whole point of becoming a writer. I’ve used writing to give myself an interesting life and a continuing education. If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write. Learning is a tonic.”
72. When writing, trust your curiosity.
“I’m struck by how often as a writer I say to myself, “That’s interesting.” If you find yourself saying it, pay attention and follow your nose. Trust your curiosity to connect with the curiosity of your readers.”
73. All decisions in writing are important.
“Some of the decisions are big (“What should I write about?”) and some are as small as the smallest word. But all of them are important.”
74. How you organize your writing is often as important as the writing itself.
“Learning how to organize a long article is just as important as learning how to write a clear and pleasing sentence. All your clear and pleasing sentences will fall apart if you don’t keep remembering that writing is linear and sequential, that logic is the glue that holds it together, that tension must be maintained from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next and from one section to the next”
75. How to begin is the hardest part.
“The hardest decision about any article is how to begin it. The lead must grab the reader with a provocative idea and continue with each paragraph to hold him or her in a tight grip, gradually adding information.”
76. Constantly ask yourself “What does the reader want to know next?”
“Now, what do your readers want to know next? Ask yourself that question after every sentence.”
Other Great Pieces On Writing
- Paul Graham’s “Write Like You Talk“