Book Review: On Writing Well

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Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction.
New York: Harper-Collins, 2006. 321 p.

I enjoy reading footnotes and reference to other works as I read because of the serendipitous discoveries. One find a few months ago was a reference to William Zinsser (1922-2015). I found Writing to Learn in my local library and soon requested Writing Places and On Writing Well.

Zinsser was a writer who started as a newspaperman in New York and eventually turned freelance. His career led him to teach writing at Yale University and while there, his wife suggested he write a book about how to write. During a summer break, On Writing Well was born. Through its popularity, Zinsser taught writing in various settings for most of the rest of his life.

I brought On Writing Well home from the library just in time for a long plane trip. By the time I landed, I knew I needed my own copy, which I promptly bought. I started reading again from the beginning, underlining as I went. I can tell that this is a book I need to revisit often.

The book covers most types of nonfiction writing, dispensing useful advice on the various genres. Throughout, Zinsser’s dedication to “the simple declarative sentence” is undaunted and well demonstrated. He writes what he teaches. He could have stopped after the first ten chapters and the book would be worth owning. His discussion of style and focus are direct and sound. He is simultaneously ruthless and encouraging and his philosophy of writing is unpretentious.

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. (p. 22)

This resonates with me because it is why I write—for my enjoyment. I post on this blog as a means of accountability and it seems one or two people are worth writing for.

You learn to write by writing. It’s a truism, but what makes it a truism is that it’s true. The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis. (p. 49)

Absolutely. That is what this blog is all about this year.

On Writing Well not only clarified and reinforced my own ideas, but it also added a few challenges. Rewriting is essential and too often, I neglect it. It allows eliminating clutter and clarifying thoughts. The first draft of this review was written by hand and typing it forced the rewriting process.

I am pleased to have found William Zinsser’s On Writing Well as I now have a book to guide my writing. I also have a book to recommend to others with an interest in writing (or those who need to show more interest.) I will also recommend it to preachers as many of the same skills needed for good writing are also necessary for good preaching, though sermons and speeches are perhaps the only two forms of writing not explicitly treated in this book. The preacher who applies Zinsser’s lessons to his sermon preparation, however, will benefit those on the receiving side of the pulpit.

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