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On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction 30 Anv Rep Edition

490 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0060891541
ISBN-10: 0060891548
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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

William Zinsser is a writer, editor and teacher. He began his career on the New York Herald Tribune and has since written regularly for leading magazines. During the 1970s he was master of Branford College at Yale. His 17 books, ranging from baseball to music to American travel, include the influential Writing to Learn and Writing About Your Life. He teaches at the New School in New York.


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Product Details

  • Series: On Writing Well
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; 30 Anv Rep edition (May 9, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060891548
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060891541
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (490 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,129 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

William Zinsser, a writer, editor, and teacher, is a fourth-generation New Yorker, born in 1922. His 18 books, which range in subject from music to baseball to American travel, include several widely read books about writing.

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, first published in 1976, has sold almost 1.5 million copies to three generations of writers, editors, journalists, teachers and students.

Writing to Learn which uses examples of good writing in science, medicine and technology to demonstrate that writing is a powerful component of learning in every subject.

Writing Places, a memoir recalling the enjoyment and gratitude the places where William Zinsser has done his writing and his teaching and the unusual people he encountered on that life journey.

Mr. Zinsser began his career in 1946 at the New York Herald Tribune, where he was a writer, editor, and critic. In 1959 he left to become a freelance writer and has since written regularly for leading magazines. From 1968 to 1972 he was a columnist for Life. During the 1970s he was at Yale, where, besides teaching nonfiction writing and humor writing, he was master of Branford College. In 1979 he returned to New York and was a senior editor at the Book-of-the-Month Club until 1987, when he went back to freelance writing. He teaches at the New School and at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is an adviser on writing to schools, colleges, and other organizations. He holds honorary degrees from Wesleyan University, Rollins College, and the University of Southern Indian and is a Literary Lion of the New York Public Library.

William Zinsser's other books include Mitchell & Ruff, a profile of jazz musicians Dwike Mitchell and Willie Ruff; American Places, a pilgrimage to 16 iconic American sites; Spring Training, about the spring training camp of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1988; and Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs; and he is the Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. A jazz pianist and songwriter, he wrote a musical revue, What's the Point, which was performed off Broadway in 2003.

Mr. Zinsser lives in his home town with his wife, the educator and historian Caroline Zinsser. They have two children, Amy Zinsser, a business executive, and John Zinsser, a painter and teacher.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
The most damaging (but fair) criticism I've heard of this book came from reviewer D. Fineman who said, "He generalizes egregiously about topics that are enormous. ... He feels free to judge -- for instance scientists -- outside his field."

I agree that Zinsser does these things, but I disagree that it is a problem. In fact, if I have one criticism of the book it is exactly the opposite: that the lessons are even more generalizable and broadly applicable than Zinsser gives them credit for. For instance, if you skip the travel writing chapter, or if you read it thinking that it only applies to travel writing, then you will miss two golden and persuasive arguments that ought to apply to *any* writer:

1) The things that come to the writer easiest -- cliché, excessive detail, syrupy and vague language -- are the things that keep the reader bored/detached/passive.

2) Your main task as a writer is to distill the essence of whatever you're writing about--to find its central idea, to describe its distinctive qualities using precise images. In other words, your main task is to work excruciatingly hard.

The goal of any writer (yes, any) ought to be to transform the reader from a passive observer into an ally. It's excruciatingly hard to do, but once you realize that that's the goal, and once you realize that the parts that come easiest are what's getting in the way of that goal, then you can start writing well.

Zinsser knows these things, and he articulates them beautifully. It is one of the most persuasive books I have read, on any subject. But I hate that the lessons are hidden within topic-specific chapters. Please read with that in mind.
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74 of 76 people found the following review helpful By D. Motta on May 16, 2012
Format: Paperback
First, note the title: On Writing Well. That is how one titles an essay. It is NOT a technical book that will lay out how to write. It's a collection of well written essays about different factors that will help you write better. The negative reviews are a bit ridiculous in their complaints because they expected something other than what the book is (ironically a lot of them are poorly written as well). If you're a professional writer, this probably won't do much for you. If you like writing and want to clean up your craft a little with this collection of tips, then it'll be great for you. And I'm assuming most of us here don't get paid to write so 5 stars it is.
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116 of 132 people found the following review helpful By Mike Klaassen on May 15, 2007
Format: Paperback
On Writing Well, by William Zinsser, is meant to compliment The Elements of Style by Stunk and White. In Zinsser's own words "The Elements of Style is a book of pointers and admonitions: do this, don't do that. What it didn't address was how to apply those principles to the various forms that nonfiction writing and journalism can take."

Although the book is organized in four parts, the content could really be summarized in two categories:

· Writing principals, methods, and attitudes

· Guidelines for specific forms of nonfiction, including travel, humor, business, sports, arts, memoirs, and family history.

Subjects addressed include: rewriting, craft vs. art, humanity and warmth, clutter, simplicity, finding a style, clichés, rhythm, unity, tone, and attitude. All of these are covered with the insight of a successful writer having decades of experience.

The author works some biographical information and experiences into the text, but the focus of the material is on writing well. Given that the first edition was in 1976, some of the examples and attitudes are dated, but they also add to the charm of the book.

No recaps or exercises are included at the end of the chapters, but an index is provided for easy reference.

As the subtitle indicates, the book is specifically directed at nonfiction writing, but many of the concepts also apply to fiction. With over a million copies sold, and in its thirtieth anniversary edition, much of the information has already been worked into other writing guides. As envisioned by Zinsser, On Writing Well compliments The Elements of Style. Together, they make a great combination.
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538 of 681 people found the following review helpful By D. Fineman on September 20, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I usually only write reviews for books I can praise. I actively avoid giving criticism about books that have, as this one does, a large and enthusiastic following. I feel compelled to write now because I think that many will not be as well served as they imagine after reading these reviews.

I think this book is popular for many understandable and, in themselves, good reasons. The writer is up-beat and optimistic. He supplies simple formulas for complex problems. He has both wit and charm. He supplies many funny stories. He makes fun of pompous academics and pedagogues. He is empathetic and warm. His instructions are personal, not distant or abstract. He requires little of the reader and avoids pesky formalities. For all these reasons, one should be attracted to a non-fictional book of reminiscence about writing. However, all these virtues are not those of a book teaching writing.

Indeed, many dislike books that try to teach writing because the majority are rigorous, boring, and impersonal. So, it is no wonder that against those demanding and dry texts this humane presentation appears as an oasis. However, it is a mistake to think that those emotional values make this a good writing text.

This book's relation with writing is much like a movie's relation with its topic: a narrative about a thing more than an instruction. For instance, "Field of Dreams" may make us happy, but it hardly is likely to make us better baseball players. Here most of Zinsser's time is expended in context, quotation of others, and folksy tale. These are topped off with a brief commands - "Go to it" - that have a cheerleader's enthusiasm and lack of content.
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On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
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