On Writing Well: very, very well

On Writing Well: very, very wellAm I a little behind the times, reviewing a book that was first published in 1976? Well, I don’t care; I just read the book this year for the first time (and there will be many more times, I promise you) and my only regret is that I didn’t read it the moment it was published back in those days of the chartreuse platform boots, flared jumpsuits and terrible hair perms.

Of all the books on nonfiction writing in English that I have read – and there have been hundreds – this is the jewel in the crown: the perfect book that makes many, many others, (not my own of course!) look like gabbling turkeys.

Quite simply, “On Writing Well” is superb and will transform the way you write.

I thought I knew it all, but it has really taught me a lot, as well as corroborating many of the notions and theories I have about nonfiction writing for which I have sometimes been criticized. Considering Zinsser’s book has sold well over 1 million copies and is still up there after 35 years, he isn’t wrong – which suggests that maybe I’m not, either.

On Writing Well: very, very wellIn his gentle, amusing way he deflates the egos of pompous corporate-speakers and long-winded jargon munchers along with the bright and breezy bloggers who think writing is an easy blast. Good writing is not easy, he says; it’s hard and lonely and the words seldom just flow. Like many of the old-school writers – the good ones – Zinsser is a great believer in the rewriting process and careful editing. But his most important point of all is to bring your nonfiction writing – even business writing – alive by using your personality and imagination to grab readers’ attention and hang on to it. Add to that simple, uncluttered wording, avoidance of clichés and a touch of humor, and you’re “On (your way to) Writing Well.”

William Zinsser is now 90 years old and as far as I can tell is still teaching. Here is the introduction from his website:

“William Zinsser is a lifelong journalist and nonfiction writer—he began his career on the New York Herald Tribune in 1946—and is also a teacher, best known for his book On Writing Well, a companion held in affection by three generations of writers, reporters, editors, teachers and students. His 17 other books range from memoir (Writing Places; Writing About Your Life) to travel (American Places), jazz (Mitchell & Ruff), American popular song (Easy to Remember), baseball (Spring Training) and the craft of writing (Writing to Learn). During the 1970s he was at Yale University, where he was master of Branford College and taught the influential nonfiction workshop that would start many writers and editors on their careers. From 2010 – 11 he wrote a weekly blog for The American Scholar“Zinsser on Friday” about the craft of writing, popular culture, and the arts. The blog recently won The National Magazine Award for digital commentary. Today, in New York, he continues to write and to teach. His office is at 45 East 62nd Street, New York, NY 10065.”

The book is 300 pages long – probably 100,000 words or more – yet for me it was one of those “can’t put it down” reads which, considering it’s a nonfiction book about writing nonfiction, proves that it’s highly entertaining. Zinsser practices what he preaches: he keeps you riveted with humor, common sense and just when you least expect it, a pleasant surprise.

Needless to say it’s not a linear story, but a collection of chunky chapters grouped into parts covering principles, methods, forms and attitudes.

The chapters I found especially illuminating were:

On Writing Well: very, very well

  • Simplicity
  • The Audience
  • Writing About People: The Interview
  • Writing About Places: The Travel Article
  • Writing About Yourself: The Memoir
  • Science and Technology
  • Business Writing: Writing in your Job
  • Humor
  • The Sound of your Voice
  • Writing Family History and Memoir

The 35th anniversary edition of this fabulous book is due out on November 30th, 2012 – here is the UK link, and I imagine all Amazons worldwide will carry it. If you haven’t read it yet – buy it. It will be money well spent.

Now, it’s your turn to write very, very well:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published


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