Dan Kim @dankimio

On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction — William Zinsser


  • Elements of Style was a book of pointers and admonitions: do this, don’t do that. What it didn’t address was how to apply those principles to the various forms that nonfiction writing and journalism can take

2. Simplicity

  • Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important
  • The sentence is too simple—there must be something wrong with it.
  • Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they don’t know. Then they must look at what they have written and ask: have I said it

3. Clutter

  • Is there any way to recognize clutter at a glance? Here’s a device my students at Yale found helpful. I would put brackets around every component in a piece of writing that wasn’t doing useful work

4. Style

  • Writers are obviously at their most natural when they write in the first 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
  • Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going

5. The Audience

  • Editors and readers don’t know what they want to read until they read it. Besides, they’re always looking for something new

6. Words

  • 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

8. Unity

  • 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
  • What is not agreeable is to switch back and forth
  • Therefore think small. Decide what corner of your subject you’re going to bite off, and be content to cover it well and stop
  • As for what point you want to make, every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before

9. The Lead and the Ending

  • The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead
  • Therefore your lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading. It must cajole him with freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humor, or surprise, or with an unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question
  • Continue to build. Every paragraph should amplify the one that preceded it. Give more thought to adding solid detail and less to entertaining the reader
  • One moral of this story is that you should always collect more material than you will use
  • Another moral is to look for your material everywhere, not just by reading the obvious sources and interviewing the obvious people
  • Another approach is to just tell a story. It’s such a simple solution, so obvious and unsophisticated, that we often forget that it’s available to us
  • The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right
  • For the nonfiction writer, the simplest way of putting this into a rule is: 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
  • Something I often do in my writing is to bring the story full circle—to strike at the end an echo of a note that was sounded at the beginning. It gratifies my sense of symmetry, and it also pleases the reader, completing with its resonance the journey we set out on together

10. Bits & Pieces

  • 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
  • Probably no other language has such a vast supply of verbs so bright with color. Don’t choose one that is dull or merely serviceable
  • and avoid the kind that need an appended preposition to complete their work. Don’t set up a business that you can start or launch. Don’t say that the president of the company stepped down. Did he resign? Did he retire? Did he get fired? Be precise. Use precise verbs
  • Most adverbs are unnecessary. You will clutter your sentence and annoy the reader if you choose a verb that has a specific meaning and then add an adverb that carries the same meaning
  • The adjective that exists solely as decoration is a self-indulgence for the writer and a burden for the reader
  • Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw: “a bit,” “a little,” “sort of,” “kind of,” “rather,” “quite,” “very,” “too,” “pretty much,” “in a sense” and dozens more. They dilute your style and your persuasiveness
  • usually to add a related thought to the first half of a sentence. Still, the semicolon brings the reader, if not to a halt, at least to a pause. So use it with discretion, remembering that it will slow to a Victorian pace the early-21st-century momentum you’re striving for, and rely instead on the period and the dash
  • The dash is used in two ways. One is to amplify or justify in the second part of the sentence a thought you stated in the first part. “We decided to keep going—it was only 100 miles more and we could get there in time for dinner.
  • The other use involves two dashes, which set apart a parenthetical thought within a longer sentence. “She told me to get in the car—she had been after me all summer to have a haircut—and we drove silently into town.
  • But it still serves well its pure role of bringing your sentence to a brief halt before you plunge into, say, an itemized list. “The brochure said the ship would stop at the following ports: Oran, Algiers, Naples, Brindisi, Piraeus, Istanbul and Beirut.”
  • Learn to alert the reader as soon as possible to any change in mood from the previous sentence. At least a dozen words will do this job for you: “but,” “yet,” “however,” “nevertheless,” “still,” “instead,” “thus,” “therefore,” “meanwhile,” “now,” “later,” “today,” “subsequently” and several more
  • Your style will be warmer and truer to your personality if you use contractions like “I’ll” and “won’t” and “can’t” when they fit comfortably into what you’re writing
  • Always use “that” unless it makes your meaning ambiguous
  • If your sentence needs a comma to achieve its precise meaning, it probably needs “which.” “Which” serves a particular identifying function, different from “that.” (A) “Take the shoes that are in the closet.” This means: take the shoes that are in the closet, not the ones under the bed. (B) “Take the shoes, which are in the closet.” Only one pair of shoes is under discussion; the “which” usage tells you where they are. Note that the comma is necessary in B, but not in A
  • You’ll sink to the bottom of the lake and never be seen again
  • Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it
  • Study good nonfiction writers to see how they do it
  • A style that converts every “he” into a “they” will quickly turn to mush
  • Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost.
  • Many people assume that professional writers don’t need to rewrite; the words just fall into place. On the contrary, careful writers can’t stop fiddling
  • always remembering where you left the reader in the previous sentence
  • Don’t annoy your readers by over-explaining—by telling them something they already know or can figure out. Try not to use words like “surprisingly,” “predictably” and “of course,” which put a value on a fact before the reader encounters the fact

11. Nonfiction as Literature

  • mentioned Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff
  • Lewis Thomas and Joan Didion and Gary Wills
  • Marion Elizabeth Rodgers’s Mencken: The American Iconoclast;

12. Writing About People: The Interview

  • Never go into an interview without doing whatever homework you can. If you are interviewing a town official, know his or her voting record.
  • Make a list of likely questions—it will save you the vast embarrassment of going dry in mid-interview
  • Now, on second thought, there’s a hole in the language or the logic. To leave the hole is no favor to the reader or the speaker—and no credit to the writer
  • When you use a quotation, start the sentence with it. Don’t lead up to it with a vapid phrase saying what the man said
  • If you crave variety, choose synonyms that catch the shifting nature of the conversation. “He pointed out,” “he explained,” “he replied,” “he added”—these all carry a particular meaning
  • All these technical skills, however, can take you just so far

13. Writing About Places: The Travel Article

  • If one of the rides at Disneyland got stuck, if somebody fell into the awesome Grand Canyon, that would be worth hearing about
  • Travelese is also a style of soft words that under hard examination mean nothing, or that mean different things to different people: “attractive,” “charming,” “romantic.”

14. Writing About Yourself: The Memoir

  • Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, the most elegant memoir I know, invokes a golden boyhood in czarist St. Petersburg, a world of private tutors and summer houses that the Russian Revolution would end forever