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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Book Review: William Zinsser's On Writing Well

I’ve tried to write this review a few times now and I think that the problem is that On Writing Well so thoroughly covers vast territory that it’s impossible to write anything that does the book justice. On Writing Well is William Zinsser’s opus after a lifetime of teaching and writing. All of my thoughts end up looking like introductory paragraphs and don’t really follow one another. I’m not giving up, but I’d rather just write this post and have done with it for the time being and come back to On Writing Well some other time.


I participated in ten writing workshops as an undergraduate and now have read a few books on the craft of writing. Every teacher and writer seems compelled, whether anyone asks or not, to answer the question, “Can writing be taught?” The reply is almost always some variant on, “No… but there’s a lot that can be learned.”

What I appreciate about On Writing Well is that Zinsser makes no apology. This is a book about craft and if you’re reading it you’re probably of the opinion that reading a thesis on writing as a learned skill will help you become a better writer. I have more Thoughts and Opinions on this subject, but I’ll leave that for another post.


What is immediately obvious about Zinsser, even after reading the first page or two, is that he is a phenomenal writer and teacher. I read a copy of the fourth edition, which I believe is the last, and his introduction is as cogent and thoughtful as the rest of the book. He explains that On Writing Well is a collection of essays dealing with subjects and themes he taught as a professor of nonfiction writing. With each later edition, he added more essays on innovations and changes he saw in the field of professional writing. Primarily, he used later editions to update the reading recommendations so that they were still relevant and to alter the text of the original to be less sexist. On Writing Well was first written in 1976 and so he often referred to the Reader and Writer with male pronouns. In subsequent revisions, Zinsser removed much of the presuming language as possible and in a later chapter discusses sexism in expository writing in depth.

Another major alteration was a chapter on the Word Processor. As a bibliophile and writing geek I thought this chapter was like an archeological treasure. I have never been compelled to use a typewriter and so I can’t empathize with his description of the former “slave labor” of writing. The work of writing, Zinsser explains, was revolutionized with the word processor. The chapter on the word processor is long and thoughtful, but basically Zinsser argues that now technology has given writers the greatest gift ever: the ability to endlessly and freely revise.

Zinsser’s favorite catchphrase is, “The essence of writing is revision.”  Writing is work and a craft and the only way a writer can really achieve a fine product is through careful, thoughtful revision. All writers and teachers eventually make the same point, but I think Zinsser’s lesson is a little more noble, that writing is work worth the payoff. This could just be my puritan-American sensibilities giving me a bias, but I think that his emphasizing the act and labor of writing legitimizes the profession.


In the chapter on business writing, Zinsser talks about a workshop he led with a group of school administrators. Their writing was muddled because it was too abstract, filled with sweeping passive and entirely conceptual statements. They were writing newsletters to parents that were filled with jargon and catchphrases that didn’t mean anything. He didn’t bother with a drawn out lesson how to use a comma and instead gave this simple instruction: find the humanity in your writing and use the first and second person as often as you can.

In my first nonfiction class, my teacher told us on the first day, “Use ‘I’ a lot. For some reason people are always afraid to say ‘I’ and so I want to be perfectly clear that you have permission to use the first person.” Her point was essentially the same as Zinsser’s, that abstract writing is eerie because no person is doing anything. We all crave a human connection.

One of Zinsser’s central points is that good writing has great humanity. Good writing is the effort of the writer to convey his or her particular point of view to another person. It’s about sharing and generosity.

Last August I had the pleasure of seeing Ibtisam Barakat give a lecture at the University of Iowa on teaching writing. She is a Palestinian woman who moved to America as a young woman. She says that her whole life has been spent, literally and figuratively, in exile. Then she said that she believes, “Most human beings are in exile.” We are in exile from one another, and by being an individual, living is essentially lonely. Writing, she says, is the attempt to fight against loneliness for your own sake and for benefit of your fellow human beings. I like that sentiment, and I think that Zinsser would agree with her.


There isn’t much about On Writing Well that I don’t like. Even his lamentation about the degeneration of writing was interesting because he makes such an eloquent argument. I distrust any talk about the “good old days” followed by “kids these days.” But Zinsser argues that there is a tendency in education to teach that certain subjects are appropriate and others are inappropriate subjects for an essay. The result is that people feel they must write what someone else (a teacher, an editor, a critic) wants.

His point is that you should write what you love, which is a lesson I’ve seen in many books on writing, but I think it’s interesting how he frames the problem with Audience. It’s not enough to just write what you want, you have to write without consideration for what someone else will think. Of course he’s not excusing bad writing, he’s just advocating self-confidence.


While I read this book I sent my dad an email asking him if he’d ever read On Writing Well because one of Zinsser’s mantra’s is that good writing is clear and concise. When I wrote essays in high school, my dad would proof read them and, more often than not, he’d circle a sentence or a paragraph and ask, “What are you trying to say here?” I’d tell him my point and then he’d say, “Good. Now write that.”

Writing clearly and concisely is a never-ending battle. Even though my dad gave me my first lesson on the aesthetic and utility of clean prose with as few frills as possible, I still appreciate Zinsser’s thoughts and tricks. Don’t be arrogant. Don’t try to show off. Just say what you mean to say and get out as soon as possible.


I could – and probably should – write much more about On Writing Well, but everything I write feels inadequate by comparison. If you believe, as I do, that good writing can be taught and learned, I think you will get a lot out of this book. Someday, if I’m ever permitted to teach a class on writing, I know that I will reference On Writing Well liberally.

In the meantime, I’m putting this one on the shelf. I know that I will come back to it soon.

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