Another classic. But what makes it so? The principles are timeless; most of what you’ll find in On Writing Well is sound advice. Nothing that will have you leaping out of your chair. But you’ll be nodding your head in agreement for most of the book.
Consistent practice + time + simplicity = good writing
Here’s what I learnt:
Rewriting is critical
The first step in writing is to get your thoughts down on paper. The trouble that many people face is they try to get it right the first time around. Instead, vomit it all out. Don’t be pedantic about structure, flow and word choice when writing your first draft. Think of it as building a new road. Your first focus: lay the raw materials. It’s OK if it’s a little lumpy.
Now that it’s down on paper, rewrite. Smooth things out. Get rid of any excess, fill in the holes and paint the lines.
Forget about style
Every piece of writing has a distinct style. One article comes across as light and bouncy while another is deep and serious. The style is not something you add to your writing, Zinsser says. It comes naturally. It’s apart of the words you choose and how you piece together an article. It depends on what you’re writing about and the message you want to convey.
Don’t put a line through a sentence because readers might think you’re a little odd. Let your unique style flow.
Clear thoughts equals clear writing
Write about things you know well. Familiarity leads to clarity, Zinsser says.
That doesn’t mean you’re restricted to write about your interests only. Get to know a foreign subject matter, before writing about it. Do your research and understand it. Only when you can talk about it to others with ease are you ready to write about it.
You are your target audience
Here, Zinsser goes against the dogmatic principle to ‘write for your target audience’. He makes the argument that writing for a target audience is impossible. You’re not in their shoes and besides, each person is an individual. You’ll miss your mark by generalising.
Doing something to please or appeal to others doesn’t work in real life, why would it work in writing? Instead, Zinsser says, write to please yourself. You’ll entertain your readers this way.
Don’t bite off more than you can chew
There’s a lot to say about any subject. The book, How to Poo on a Date, is an example. The trouble as a writer is, where do you stop?
Bite off a small chunk of the subject, Zinsser says. Write about this segment well. Don’t try to write the definitive guide (and steer clear of books and articles with this in their title). There’s no such thing.
We’re taught the classic essay structure in school. The concluding paragraph should summarise all the main points we’ve made so far. The purpose: to remind the reader of what they’ve read.
Boulderdash, Zinsser says.
The reader can read the essay again if they need reminding. A piece of writing doesn’t explode after reading; this isn’t Mission Impossible. Instead, write about it well the first time. Make it clear and sticky so the reader remembers.
Then, once you’ve made all the points you wanted to make, look for an exit. Don’t be that guy at the party who’s still there fifteen minutes after he’s said goodbye. Make your exit memorable and unique too. Take the reader by surprise.
To write well,
This is the best way,
To become a writing boffin.