On Writing Well

On Writing Well“If the reader is lost, it is generally because the writer has not been careful enough to keep him on the path.”

This gem is from Willian Zinsser’s classic book ‘On Writing Well’, which I’m re-reading and can’t recommend highly enough. My copy is old and yellowing, showing the signs of having been consulted often during the several decades it has sat on my bookshelf. Originally published in 1976 as ‘On Writing Well: An informal guide to writing nonfiction’, it was republished last year as ‘On Writing Well: The classic guide to writing nonfiction’. It well deserves to be called a classic. Zinsser’s advice is as timely now as it was when he first wrote it. I concede that in my old copy there are a couple of chapters about writing with word processors that now sound quaintly outdated, but his basic principles about what constitutes good writing are still bang on target. If anything, his advice is more needed today than it was when first written.

Bureaucratic language, passive sentence structures and meaningless strings of qualifiers seem to creep into many reports these days. They become so prevalent that as readers we often forget that it needn’t be so. Worse still is the tendency to inject extra words into sentences in the mistaken belief that it will make the writing sound better. It doesn’t. Simplicity wins out every time.

Zinsser doesn’t say that it’s easy to write well. He expects writers to work hard at the craft of writing and words to work even harder:

“Every word that serves no function, 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.”

Zinsser’s advice is to write clear, uncluttered sentences. He stresses the need to take care with every word, to ensure that sentences cannot be misinterpreted. He’s a stickler for details:

“A small detail, you may say – not worth bothering about. It is worth bothering about. The game is won or lost on hundreds of small details.”

On Writing Well - simplicityI can’t find anything significant I disagree with in ‘On Writing Well’. I still seek to follow his advice in my own writing and in the courses I teach. I like Zinsser’s vision of good writing:

“Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to “personalise” the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest strength and the least clutter. Can such principles be taught? Maybe not. But most of them can be learned.”

Write Course’s flagship course Write Well provides participants with an opportunity to learn the principles of good writing. Check out the scheduled courses page for details of courses and dates. Write Well suitable for anyone who cares about the words they write, whatever the context in which they write.