On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Published in April 2022
Updated in June 2022

I finished reading On Writing Well by William Zinsser. I mentioned in my February notes why I wanted to read this book — people expect you to know how to write, but nobody teaches you how to write. Non-native speakers face greater challenges. Teachers say that the more adjectives and the longer sentences the better. Clichés and standard collocations are what get you an A. But this is not how good English writers write.

The book consists of two parts. The first part gives you tools to improve your writing. It is simple. Use only what’s necessary. Don’t add words to your writing to sound smart. Avoid adding new adverbs when choosing a precise verb would do the same job. Use adjectives only when their meaning is not part of the noun. Keep your writing simple. Write for yourself. Keep it short. Always rewrite. Express your real self because people want to hear the real you. Find precise words for what you want to say.

The second part of the book focuses more on writing different types of prose. It was not immediately beneficial for me now because I did not intend to write something as big as a memoir. But it was inspiring and encouraging. Sometimes I wanted to grab my laptop and write something personal.

I noticed on Goodreads that some reviewers say that Zinsser’s style lacks poetry and imagination. But this is missing the point. This book is not about fictional writing, where vivid descriptions are encouraged. It’s about expressing ideas clearly.

In my entire life, people taught me to do the opposite. Therefore, this approach to writing felt new and refreshing.

The book would likely be called “Lean writing” if it were written today.