015 | On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

The first sentence is everything.

If your first sentence lands, you’ve earned the right to give your reader another, but if it falters, you run the risk of losing them forever. The only sentence that matters more than the first, of course, is the second. And then every... sentence... thereafter.

William Zinsser spent decades as a writing professor at Yale University. He wrote a number of bestselling books, but he is best remembered for his timeless classic, On Writing Well. With over one million copies in print, On Writing Well is widely known as a must-read for anyone with a passion or profession in writing. In a concise and comedic style, Zinsser offers readers an Ivy League intensive on the do's and don'ts of good writing, while at the same time making it an easy and enjoyable read.

“The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components,” says Zinsser. “Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation.”

That might sound like common sense - to write how you talk - but Zinsser says it's a common trap many young writers fall into. The young writer stiffens the second they sit down in front of the blank page. Amateurs want to sound like a writer. Amateurs want to sound smart, witty, interesting, but it almost always fails. Readers can see right through it.

“Most writers sow adjectives almost unconsciously into the soil of their prose to make it more lush and pretty," he says, "and the sentences become longer and longer as they fill up with stately elms and frisky kittens and hard-bitten detectives and sleepy lagoons. Don’t say you were a bit confused and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be annoyed. Good writing is lean and confident.”

From adverbs to adjectives, edits to habits, Zinsser covers everything a young writer needs to know before beginning a career in writing. Whether writing about sports, science, places, or yourself, there are certain rules that are intuitive to readers, but must be taught to writers. The good news is, writing is not an art, it's a craft, and according to Zinsser, any craft can be learned.

“Writing well means believing in your writing and believing in yourself, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel," he says. "You will write only as well as you make yourself write. Few people realize how bad they write."

Don't be that guy. Write well.

Buy this book.


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