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On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction Paperback – May 9, 2006
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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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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.
From this book I learned the value of brevity. I learned the value of simplicity. And more than anything else, I learned to trust myself and the concept that, in the end, people don't love a book because they are in love with the subject, they love a book (and stick with it regardless of topic) because they like the author. I also learned, very importantly, that your teachers were all wrong when they told you not to write in the first person: Mr. Zinsser convinced me that writing in the first person is the best--often the only--way to write.
If you don't trust yourself and don't trust your ideas, why on Earth are you writing anything?
I also learned from this book that humor and surprise are necessary elements of most nonfiction writing.
Be yourself, talk directly to the reader, be funny, be human, be a tiny bit clever--and you may even surprise yourself with what a good writer you are. Trust yourself, and trust simplicity.
On Writing Well offers practical advice for tuning our recorded thoughts. While modern communication emphasizes blind responsiveness and ephemerality, careful thought and clear construction will always endure.