On Writing Well by William Zinsser: Summary

May 6, 2020


What it's about?

A must read for anyone who does any writing. This is my favorite book on how to improve your writing.

High-Level Notes

"Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other"

“The reader is someone with an attention span of about 30 seconds— a person assailed by many forces competing for attention. At one time those forces were relatively few: newspapers, magazines, radio, spouse, children, pets. Today they also include a galaxy of electronic devices for receiving entertainment and information— television, VCRs, DVDs, CDs, video games, the Internet, e-mail, cell phones, BlackBerries, iPods— as well as a fitness program, a pool, a lawn and that most potent of competitors, sleep.”

General Tips For Becoming A Better Writer

Good writing doesn't come naturally, most people think it should just flow out of you but Zinsser is clear that it takes hard work.

"Just like anything you have to constantly work to become better at it."

Unlike somethings you learn "Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there. “Up” in “free up” shouldn’t be there. Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose."

Writing is as much about what is there as what isn't there.

"The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis."

"Writing is learned by imitation, Benjamin Franklin swore by this he would write up his own piece then look to better writers to see how he could improve his piece."

"One moral of this story is that you should always collect more material than you will use."

Advice On Good Writing Is

"Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to 'personalize' the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength."

"It’s the common currency of newspapers and of magazines like People—a mixture of cheap words, made-up words and clichés that have become so pervasive that a writer can hardly help using them. You must fight these phrases or you’ll sound like every hack."

"But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence."

"If you don’t know how to punctuate—and many college students still don’t—get a grammar book."

"Always ask yourself what is this piece about, and ensure that it delivers to that."

"Used in moderation, making yourself gullible—or downright stupid—gives the reader the enormous pleasure of feeling superior."

“I always thought that there was at least one person in the stands who had never seen me play, and I didn’t want to let him down.” - Always write like it's a first impression.

"Don’t annoy your readers by over-explaining—by telling them something they already know or can figure out. Try not to use words like “surprisingly,” “predictably” and “of course,” which put a value on a fact before the reader encounters the fact. Trust your material."

"Keep your paragraphs short. Writing is visual—it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain." - This is oddly true as you read with your eyeballs! Duh!

"No area of life is stupid to someone who takes it seriously. If you follow your affections you will write well and will engage your readers." - Love this some of my favorite blogs do this, it's the question of having a niche blog or a blog about your general interests.

"Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested."

"(You will be) nervous when you go forth into unfamiliar terrain. As a nonfiction writer you’ll be thrown again and again into specialized worlds, and you’ll worry that you’re not qualified to bring the story back."

"Confidence and sincerity will take you far." - Love this, be confident and sincere in your writing and people will accept you.

"The moral for nonfiction writers is: think broadly about your assignment. Don’t assume that an article for Audubon has to be strictly about nature, or an article for Car & Driver strictly about cars. Push the boundaries of your subject and see where it takes you. Bring some part of your own life to it; it’s not your version of the story until you write it."

"But nobody can write a decent article about the disappearance of small towns in Iowa; it would be all generalization and no humanity. The writer would have to write about one small town in Iowa and thereby tell her larger story, and even within that one town she would have to reduce her story still further: to one store, or one family, or one farmer."

  • For example writing about my experiences in learning to code, rather than everyone's experience.
  • I like the thought process of scaling down ideas. Making them more human and specific.

"When you feel like you don't have the credentials to write on a topic - "They didn’t ask because I had another kind of credential: sincerity. It was obvious to those men that I really wanted to know how they did their work. Remember this when you enter new territory and need a shot of confidence. Your best credential is yourself." - Good thoughts to live by. Confidence and sincerity will take you far. This book at times appears to me to be more than just about writing.

"If the reader is lost, it’s usually because the writer hasn’t been careful enough."

Words Matter & Why Cliches Suck

"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." - I constantly struggle with this. But, now I'm now a changed man.

"As for “meanwhile,” “now,” “today” and “later,” what they also save is confusion, for careless writers often change their time frame without remembering to tip the reader off. “Now I know better.” “Today you can’t find such an item.”...Always make sure your readers are oriented. Always ask yourself where you left them in the previous sentence."

"Learn to alert the reader as soon as possible to any change in mood from the previous sentence. At least a dozen words will do this job for you: “but,” “yet,” “however,” “nevertheless,” “still,” “instead,” “thus,” “therefore,” “meanwhile.” - This makes it easier for the reader to process mood changes.

"Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw: “a bit,” “a little,” “sort of,” “kind of,” “rather,” “quite,” “very,” “too,” “pretty much,” “in a sense” and dozens more. They dilute your style and your persuasiveness."

"Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don’t hedge."

"Again, the rule is simple: make your adjectives do work that needs to be done. “He looked at the gray sky and the black clouds and decided to sail back to the harbor.” The darkness of the sky and the clouds is the reason for the decision."

“The living room looked as if an atomic bomb had gone off there,” writes the novice writer, describing what he saw on Sunday morning after a party that got out of hand. Well, we all know he’s exaggerating to make a droll point." - Overstatement is poor because we know an atomic bomb didn't go off, we are being lazy.

"Get in the habit of using dictionaries: Not just to spell but to know what it means. To understand its origin and its entomology."

"Remember that words are the only tools you’ve got. Learn to use them with originality and care. And also remember: somebody out there is listening."

"Care deeply about words. People also read with their ear so listen to your writing." The next example shows how "ain't" is such a piercing sound and that I should never use it in my writing unless quoting someone."

"Webster dictionary notes ' “ain’t” is “used orally in most parts of the U.S. by many cultivated speakers.” Just where Webster cultivated those speakers I ain’t sure."


Zinsser describes the order of your writing and the flow as 'unity' in my notes I split it into Order and Flow. I focused on the lead as it is something I struggle with.

"Order "not only keeps the reader from straggling off in all direction; it satisfies your readers subconscious need for order and reassure them that all is well at the Helm."

  • Before you start writing ask yourself some basic questions:
    • “In what capacity am I going to address the reader?” (Reporter? Provider of information? Average man or woman?)
    • “What pronoun and tense am I going to use?”
    • “What style?” (Impersonal reportorial? Personal but formal? Personal and casual?)
    • “What attitude am I going to take toward the material?” (Involved? Detached? Judgmental? Ironic? Amused?)
    • “How much do I want to cover?”
    • “What one point do I want to make?”

"From these Questions decide what corner of your subject you’re going to bite off, and be content to cover it well and stop." - I love this advice. It is often what stops me from writing. The feeling that I'm missing things and not getting the last word.

"Every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before. Not two thoughts, or five—just one."


"The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead."

"Readers want to know—very soon—what’s in it for them."

The lead

Don't bury the lead, you've probably heard this before.

"It must provide hard details that tell the reader why the piece was written and why he ought to read it. But don’t dwell on the reason. Coax the reader a little more; keep him inquisitive."

Example of a good lead as it is odd and draws people in:

I’ve often wondered what goes into a hot dog. Now I know and I wish I didn’t.

"One reason for citing this lead is to note that salvation often lies not in the writer’s style but in some odd fact he or she was able to discover."

Now as the example is continued listen to how good it is:

"My trouble began when the Department of Agriculture published the hot dog’s ingredients—everything that may legally qualify—because it was asked by the poultry industry to relax the conditions under which the ingredients might also include chicken. In other words, can a chickenfurter find happiness in the land of the frank?"

"This paragraph gives a sentence to explain the basis of the article then a snappy sentence that returns the tone of the piece."

The next paragraph:

"Judging by the 1,066 mainly hostile answers that the Department got when it sent out a questionnaire on this point, the very thought is unthinkable. The public mood was most felicitously caught by the woman who replied: “I don’t eat feather meat of no kind."

"Another fact and another smile. Whenever you’re lucky enough to get a quotation as funny as that one, find a way to use it."

"Take special care with the last sentence of each paragraph—it’s the crucial springboard to the next paragraph. Try to give that sentence an extra twist of humor or surprise, like the periodic “snapper.”

"When moving between paragraphs, the first sentence of the next paragraph should grow out of the last sentence of the previous paragraph; giving the reader no chance of getting away."

Knowing when to stop is important.

  • "For the nonfiction writer, the simplest way of putting this into a rule is: when you’re ready to stop, stop. If you have presented all the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the nearest exit."

Good ways to summarize an article:

  • “In sum, it can be noted that …” Or a question that asks, “What insights, then, have we been able to glean from …?” These are signals that you are about to repeat in compressed form what you have already said in detail.

On Clutter

What I took from Zinsser on clutter, is consider why you are using certain words. Below were my favorite tips from Zinsser on clutter. I hope to implement in my writing. The key take away is avoid Clutter in your writing , try to keep your writing simple don't over complicate things.

"Clutter is the laborious phrase that has pushed out the short word that means the same thing."

Examples of Clutter

Beware, then, of the long word that’s no better than the short word: “assistance” (help), “numerous” (many), “facilitate” (ease), “individual” (man or woman), “remainder” (rest), “initial” (first), “implement” (do), “sufficient” (enough), “attempt” (try), “referred to as” (called) and hundreds more.

"Beware of all the slippery new fad words: paradigm and parameter, prioritize and potentialize. They are all weeds that will smother what you write. Don’t dialogue with someone you can talk to. Don’t interface with anybody."

"Just as insidious are all the word clusters with which we explain how we propose to go about our explaining: “I might add,” “It should be pointed out,” “It is interesting to note.” If you might add, add it. If it should be pointed out, point it out. If it is interesting to note, make it interesting; are we not all stupefied by what follows when someone says, “This will interest you”? Don’t inflate what needs no inflating: “with the possible exception of” (except), “due to the fact that” (because), “he totally lacked the ability to” (he couldn’t), “until such time as” (until), “for the purpose of” (for)."

“Very” is a useful word to achieve emphasis, but far more often it’s clutter."

"Most adverbs are unnecessary. You will clutter your sentence and annoy the reader if you choose a verb that has a specific meaning and then add an adverb that carries the same meaning. Don’t tell us that the radio blared loudly; “blare” connotes loudness. Don’t write that someone clenched his teeth tightly; there’s no other way to clench teeth."

  • Littered with precipitous cliffs and lacy spiderwebs, or with adjectives denoting the color of an object whose color is well known: yellow daffodils and brownish dirt.

“Joe saw him” is strong. “He was seen by Joe” is weak. The first is short and precise; it leaves no doubt about who did what. The second is necessarily longer and it has an insipid quality: something was done by somebody to someone else. It’s also ambiguous.

Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb.

  • "Active verbs push hard; passive verbs tug fitfully. Active verbs also enable us to visualize an activity because they require a pronoun (“he”), or a noun (“the boy”), or a person (“Mrs. Scott”) to put them in motion."
  • "Many verbs also carry in their imagery or in their sound a suggestion of what they mean: glitter, dazzle, twirl, beguile, scatter, swagger, poke, pamper, vex."

Who am I writing for?

You are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience— every reader is a different person. Don’t try to guess what sort of thing editors want to publish or what you think the country is in a mood to read. Editors and readers don’t know what they want to read until they read it. Besides, they’re always looking for something new.”

"You are who you are, he is who he is, and either you’ll get along or you won’t."

"Don't confuse sloppy writing like poorly explaining a technical detail with writing with your sense of humor."

"Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation."

“Who am I writing for?” The question that begins this chapter has irked some readers. They want me to say “Whom am I writing for?” But I can’t bring myself to say it. It’s just not me."

"Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going. 5 The Audience Soon after you confront the matter of preserving your identity, another question will occur to you: “Who am I writing for?”"

"Style comes from opinions and simplicity, being yourself and not from fancy words." - this was a big take away for me.

"If I think it’s funny I assume a few other people will find it funny, and that seems to me to be a good day’s work. It doesn’t bother me that a certain number of readers will not be amused." - I've previously avoided humor as I wanted everyone to get the joke, now I know I am writing for myself it's okay.

Technical Writing

This section is a great summary on how I can improve my technical writing for tutorials and coding guides. Yet, it would also benefit any other form of technical writing.The key points are; Be clear, follow a logical flow that the reader can follow. That is as you introduce a new point, ask yourself what questions would  the reader have.

If a scientific subject of that complexity can be made that clear and robust, in good English, with only a few technical words, which are quickly explained (kryton) or can be quickly looked up (fissile), any subject can be made clear and robust by all you writers who think you’re afraid of science and all you scientists who think you’re afraid of writing.

The reader knows nothing is the key tenant when writing technically.

Add a human element to your technical writing.

"You can’t assume that your readers know what you assume everybody knows, or that they still remember what was once explained to them."

"Describing how a process works is valuable for two reasons. It forces you to make sure you know how it works. Then it forces you to take the reader through the same sequence of ideas and deductions that made the process clear to you." - Also a reason why teaching others what you are learning is a powerful learning tool.

The Pyramid framework

The pyramid is a great mental framework when designing up blog posts for technical writing.

"Imagine science writing as an upside-down pyramid. Start at the bottom with the one fact a reader must know before he can learn any more. The second sentence broadens what was stated first, making the pyramid wider, and the third sentence broadens the second, so that you can gradually move beyond fact into significance and speculation—how a new discovery alters what was known, what new avenues of research it might open, where the research might be applied."

Example of the pyramid technique as explained by Zinsser:

WASHINGTON—There was a chimpanzee in California with a talent for playing ticktacktoe. Its trainers were delighted with this evidence of learning, but they were even more impressed by something else. They found they could tell from the animal’s brain whether any particular move would be right or wrong. It depended on the chimpanzee’s state of attention. When the trained animal was properly attentive, he made the right move.

Well, that’s a reasonably interesting fact. But why is it worth page 1 of the Times? Paragraph 2 tells me:

The significant fact was that scientists were able to recognize that state. By elaborate computer analysis of brain wave signals they were learning to distinguish what might be called “states of mind.”

But hadn’t this been possible before?

This was far more ambitious than simply detecting gross states of arousal, drowsiness or sleep. It was a new step toward understanding how the brain works.

How is it a new step?

The chimpanzee and the research team at the University of California at Los Angeles have graduated from the ticktacktoe stage, but the work with brain waves is continuing. It has already revealed some surprising insights to the brain’s behavior during space flight. It shows promise of application to social and domestic problems on earth and even to improvements in human learning.

Good. I could hardly ask for a broader application of the research: space, human problems and the cognitive process. But is it an isolated effort? No indeed.

It is part of the large ferment of modern brain research in progress in laboratories throughout the United States and abroad. Involved are all manner of creatures from men and monkeys to rats and mice, goldfish, flatworms and Japanese quail.

I begin to see the total context. But what is the purpose?

The ultimate goal is to understand the human brain—that incredible three-pound package of tissue that can imagine the farthest reaches of the universe and the ultimate core of the atom but cannot fathom its own functioning. Each research project bites off a little piece of an immense puzzle.

So now I know where the chimp at U.C.L.A. fits into the spectrum of international science. Knowing this, I’m ready to learn more about his particular contribution.

In the case of the chimpanzee being taught to play ticktacktoe, even the trained eye could see nothing beyond the ordinary in the wavy lines being traced on paper to represent electrical waves from an animal’s brain. But through analysis by computer it was possible to tell which traces showed that the animal was about to make the right move and which preceded a mistake.

An important key was the system of computer analysis developed largely by Dr. John Hanley. The state of mind that always foreshadowed a correct answer was one that might be described as trained attentiveness. Without the computer’s ability to analyze the huge complexities of the recorded brain waves, the “signatures” of such states could not have been detected.

The article goes on for four columns to describe potential uses of the research—measuring causes of domestic tension, reducing drivers’ rush-hour stress—and eventually it touches on work being done in many pockets of medicine and psychology. But it started with one chimpanzee playing ticktacktoe.

  • If you use Zinnsers voice as your own in your technical writing the key is to stop and ask yourself "what questions would the reader have?"


"You won’t write well until you understand that writing is an evolving process, not a finished product. Nobody expects you to get it right the first time, or even the second time."

"Rewriting is where the game is won or lost. It is almost 100% certain that you first draft is poor and needs to be rewritten because it is clunky, unclear etc"

"What do I mean by “rewriting”? I don’t mean writing one draft and then writing a different second version, and then a third. Most rewriting consists of reshaping and tightening and refining the raw material you wrote on your first try. Much of it consists of making sure you’ve given the reader a narrative flow he can follow with no trouble from beginning to end. Keep putting yourself in the reader’s place."

Example of taking notes to rewrite:

  • "There used to be a time when neighbors took care of one another, he remembered. [Put “he remembered” first to establish reflective tone.] It no longer seemed to happen that way, however. [The contrast supplied by “however” must come first. Start with “But.” Also establish America locale.] He wondered if it was because everyone in the modern world was so busy. [All these sentences are the same length and have the same soporific rhythm; turn this one into a question?] It occurred to him that people today have so many things to do that they don’t have time for old-fashioned friendship. [Sentence essentially repeats previous sentence; kill it or warm it up with specific detail.] Things didn’t work that way in America in previous eras. [Reader is still in the present; reverse the sentence to tell him he’s now in the past. “America” no longer needed if inserted earlier.] And he knew that the situation was very different in other countries, as he recalled from the years when he lived in villages in Spain and Italy. [Reader is still in America. Use a negative transition word to get him to Europe. Sentence is also too flabby. Break it into two sentences?] It almost seemed to him that as people got richer and built their houses farther apart they isolated themselves from the essentials of life. [Irony deferred too long. Plant irony early. Sharpen the paradox about richness.] And there was another thought that troubled him. [This is the real point of the paragraph; signal the reader that it’s important. Avoid weak “there was” construction.] His friends had deserted him when he needed them most during his recent illness. [Reshape to end with “most”; the last word is the one that stays in the reader’s ear and gives the sentence its punch. Hold sickness for next sentence; it’s a separate thought.] It was almost as if they found him guilty of doing something shameful. [Introduce sickness here as the reason for the shame. Omit “guilty”; it’s implicit.] He recalled reading somewhere about societies in primitive parts of the world in which sick people were shunned, though he had never heard of any such ritual in America. [Sentence starts slowly and stays sluggish and dull. Break it into shorter units. Snap off the ironic point.]"

"Read your article aloud from beginning to end, always remembering where you left the reader in the previous sentence."

“Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.”

"Put brackets around your writing that isn't doing useful work.  You must first cut and build a solid foundation before you add your style. Like carpentry you build a solid foundation and then add (your style)."

"Often my brackets surrounded the little qualifiers that weaken any sentence they inhabit (“a bit,” “sort of”), or phrases like “in a sense,” which don’t mean anything. Sometimes my brackets surrounded an entire sentence—the one that essentially repeats what the previous sentence said, or that says something readers don’t need to know or can figure out for themselves."

  • Hard examples:
    • Bracketing "up" in "order up" the appending of the verb is useless.
    • Adverbs that carry that same meaning as the verb ("smile happily")
    • Adjectives that state facts that the reader knows ("tall skyscrapper").