Review by Bryan Norford
On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
by William Zinsser
If one ever feels that writing non-fiction might be boring, Zinsser’s book On Writing Well will soon destroy that idea. He opens his book with a humorous anecdote describing the often contentious difference between inspiration and craft.
Inspiration: write when the “spirit moves you,” let it all hang out, writing as a soothing de-stressor, is compared to Craft: hard, meticulous work of the nine to five variety. Zinsser is of the latter conviction; his edgy humour and unusual descriptive metaphors accentuate his confidence in that choice.
Chapters on Simplicity and Clutter are amply illustrated by his clear, concise, and readable text. He will severely cut words that serve no purpose, even in common phrases like “free up,” “fall down,” and the like, where the words “up” and “down” are unnecessary or obvious.
Zinsser provides two pages of his freehand editing, apparently the third or fourth edit, to illustrate his persistent reductions for clarity. Whether most of us have the time, or even inclination, for this thoroughness, he shows, not just tells, its benefit.
I particularly like a chapter called Bits and Pieces; what he calls an umbrella chapter as a catch all for ideas he can’t include elsewhere. For me, it’s like an attic chest, full of some obvious pieces, but including many unusual gems that brighten the textual imagination. Consider this simple fix:
Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it. Unfortunately, this solution is usually the last one that occurs to writers in a jam.
Mind you, this also illustrates Zinsser sometimes falls short. He doesn’t like adverbs, but uses two in this passage, plus usually and simply. I dislike the words get or got, and “that” in the second sentence could be omitted by a simple rearrangement!
Zinsser laces his book with examples illustrating his fatigue with dreary script, and his joy with startling and engaging writing. In a chapter on The Lead and the Ending, he quotes the opening of the Bible with approval:
He also quotes Churchill’s beginning of his History of the English Speaking Peoples:"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."
And he loves the surprise at the ending of a piece by Woody Allen:"In the summer of the Roman year 699, now described as the year 55 before the birth of Christ, the Proconsul of Gaul, Gaius Julius Caesar, turned his gaze upon Britain."
Zinsser concludes with a chapter encouraging us to Write as Well as you Can. He points out that all writers are part entertainers, however distasteful that may sound. And the ways in which we intrigue and retain our readers is what makes our style.“I’m obsessed by the fact that my mother genuinely resembles Groucho Marx."
But he suggests style—how we use humour, anecdote, paradox, and similar tools—is really a reflection of one’s personality. If readers like our personality, they will probably like our writing. After all, a book is a travelling companion, one we hope will brighten our journey.
Although Zinsser’s book has 320 pages, probably the first ninety and the last eighty are of general interest—not only for non-fiction, but also for fiction writers. The remainder deals with specific subjects: interviews, travel, memoirs, technology and the like, which are better used as reference texts.
I refer to this book about as much as I look up Strunk and White. Not only is it full of useful information, it’s as readable as any mystery novel, and for my purposes, far more useful.