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On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction 6th Edition

4.6 out of 5 stars 666 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0965647632
ISBN-10: 0062735233
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Editorial Reviews


"On Writing Well belongs on any shelf of serious reference works for writers." -- --New York Times

About the Author

William Zinsser is a writer, editor and teacher. He began his career with the New York Herald Tribune and has long been a freelance writer for leading magazines. During the 1970s he taught writing at Yale, where he was master of Branford College. From 1979 to 1987 he was general editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club. His 15 books, ranging from jazz to baseball, also includeSpeaking of Journalism, American Places and the influential Writing to Learn. He now teaches at the New School in New York, his hometown.

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Product Details

  • Series: On Writing Well
  • Paperback: 308 pages
  • Publisher: Harperreference; 6th edition (April 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062735233
  • ISBN-13: 978-0965647632
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5.5 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (666 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #411,444 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top 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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Format: Paperback
With three sentences, William Zinsser became my new hero:
"Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with "but." If that's what you learned, unlearn it - there's no stronger word at the start. It announces a total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is thereby primed for the change."
In my years as a freelance writer, no single word has been the cause of as many arguments with inexperienced editors and know-it-all clients as the tiny "but." Finally, I hold in my hands the opinion of a recognized authority (one who has served on the usage panel of "The American Heritage Dictionary") who can put an end to this quibbling.
But this isn't all that recommends this book. "On Writing Well" is possibly the best-written, most-accessible coverage of effective nonfiction writing that I have ever seen. The shelves of most writers (including my own) and many bookstores are filled with how-to books on writing. Most of these tend to be of the spiritual or advice-giving sort: helping writers overcome blocks, feeling good about a suspicious career choice, getting published and the like. At the opposite pole, many of the rest focus on the minutiae of arcane linguistic rules.
Zinsser takes on writing. In 300 pages (which in themselves serve as an admirable example of effective prose) he tackles a broad range of subjects such as style, tone, word usage, structure, and unity, and applies these principles to various forms of nonfiction writing: the interview, the travel article, the memoir, etc.
A breath of fresh air, this. The author finds the practical middle ground between the bubbly motivational and dry-as-dirt grammar books that so many of us find ourselves reading when we're not writing.
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Format: Paperback
When I opened this book the first time, I fancied myself a good writer. I had just landed a job as a copywriter, and I felt pretty good about myself. Then my boss walked into my office and dropped a copy of Zinsser's classic on my desk. "This is your first assignment," he said. So I read.
What a revelation! According to Zinsser, I was guilty of a multitude of sins: clutter, fuzzy thinking, poor usage, passive verbs, you name it. So I repented, and now I'm a disciple.
This book is as engaging as it is instructive. It's so easy to read and understand, you can't help but improve. It spells out everything that's wrong most people's writing, then provides simple solutions. You'll cut pounds of fat from your writing. Your sentences will sparkle and your paragraphs will dance. Best of all, your readers will read, not groan.
The book is billed for writers of nonfiction, but its benefits extend to all writers. If you enjoy writing, even if you hate to write but find yourself in a profession that demands it, this book will vastly improve your work. It should grace every writer's bookshelf, right next to Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" and Kilpatrick's "The Writer's Art."
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Format: Paperback
Before I read William Zinsser's book On Writing Well, I was notaware that any book that deals with such thorny issues as grammar andword choice could be fun and entertaining. But Zinsser's book destroys the stereotype-it teaches great writing while being humorous.
The first of four parts, Principles, discusses matters such as word choice and style, especially simplicity. Part two is Methods. It cites examples of good writing, and discusses the various attributes of those pieces, including an invaluable short section on grammar. The third part, Forms, includes details on how to write for specific genres. And the final part, Attitudes, addresses what I consider the writer's most valuable thing: his view of his craft.
In the first part, the author explains that the principles that make a great writer can be learned. He shows that revising does not become unnecessary, even as one progresses in the craft. The chapter includes two pages of a heavily written manuscript written by Zinsser himself. The author discourages the use of jargon, arguing that it cheapens your style. Instead, clearness and simplicity are what you should strive for.
In part two, Zinsser discusses the various methods of good writing. He first emphasizes unity, and then moves to what I consider the most useful section of the book-a chapter titled "Bits and Pieces." As its name suggests, this chapter comprises all the miscellaneous writing errors noticed by the author. And instead of using "25 columns of type" as Fowler does in his Modern English Usage, Zinsser explains the difference between that and which in a single page. Each section in "Bits and Pieces" is short, but that makes the chapter more useful because it doesn't take too long to read.
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