On Writing Well By William Zinsser

Following are my reading notes from book “On writing well” by William Zinsser. The book contains a lot of good advice from the well known America writer and Yale literature teacher William Zinsser. The best lesson I got from this book is that writing is an art, you need to do your best to show its beauty and style.

  1. Anybody who can think clearly can write clearly, about any subject at all.
  2. Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is. 
  3. Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next.
  4. Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaning jargon.
  5. 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. 
  6. Writers are obviously at their most natural when they write in the first person.Writing is an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper, and it will go well to the extent that it retain its humanity. Therefore I urge people to write in first person: to use “I” and “me” and “we” and “us”. They put up a fight.
  7. Good writers are visible just behind their words.
  8. Style is tied to the psyche, and writing has deep psychological roots. 
  9. Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its won appeal. Believe in your won 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. 
  10. Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation.
  11. You’ll never make your mark as a writer unless you develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive. The English language is rich in strong and supple words. Take the time to root around and find the ones you want.
  12. The race in writing is not to the swift but to the original.
  13. Make a habit of reading what is being written today and what has been written by earlier masters. Writing is learned by imitation. If anyone asked me how I learned to write, I’d say I learned by reading the men and women who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it. But cultivate the best models. 
  14. 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.


  1. You learn to write by writing. It’s a truism.
  2. All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem. It may be a problem of where to obtain the facts or how to organize the material. It may be a problem of approach or attitude, tone or style. Whatever it is, it has to be confronted and solved.
  3. Unity is the anchor of good writing. One choice is unity of pronoun. Are you going to write in the first person, as a participant, or in the third person, as an observer? Unity of tense is another choice. Most people write mainly in the past tense, but some people write agreeably in the present. What is not agreeable is to switch back and forth. I am not saying you can’t use more than one tense, the whole purpose of tense is to enable a writer to deal with time in its various gradations, from the past to the hypothetical future. Another choice is unity of mood.

The Lead and the Ending

  1. Your lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading. It must cajole him with freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or hour, or surprise, or with an unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question. Anything will do, as long as it nudges his curiosity and tugs at his sleeve. 
  2. The positive reason for ending well is that a good last sentence — or last paragraph — is a joy in itself. It gives the reader a lift, and it lingers when the article is over. The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet see exactly right.
  3. Something I often do in my own work is to bring the story full circle — to strike at the end an echo of a note that was sounded at the beginning. It gratifies my sense of symmetry, and it also pleases the reader, completing with its resonance the journey we set out on together. 

The Bits & Pieces


  1. Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb. The difference between an active verb style and passive – verb style — in clarity ad vigor — is the difference between life and death for a writer.
  2. A style that consists of passive constructions will sap the reader’s energy.
  3. Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum. Active verbs push hard; passive verbs tug fitfully. 
  4. Don’t choose verb that is dull or merely serviceable. Make active verbs activate your sentences. 
  5. Be precise. Use precise verbs.


  1. 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. 


  1. Most adjectives are also unnecessary. Like adverbs, they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don’t stop to think that the concept is already in the noun. For example: yellow daffodils and brownish dirt. 
  2. The adjective that exists solely as decoration is a self-indulgence for the writer and a burden for the reader. 
  3. Again, the rule is simple: make your adjectives do work that needs to be done.

Little Qualifiers.

  1. Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw:’a bit,”, “a little,” “sort off,” “kind of,” “rather,” “quite,” “very,” “too,” “pretty much,” “in a sense” and dozens more, They dilute your style and your persuasiveness.
  2. Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of the reader’s trust. Readers want a writer who believes in himself and in what he saying. Don’t diminish that belief. Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold. 


  1. Keep your paragraphs short. Writing is visual —it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain. Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, whereas a long chunk of type can discourage a reader from even starting to read.

Writing About Places: The Travel Article

  1. First, choose your words with unusual care. If a phrase comes to you easily, look at it with deep suspicion; it’s probably one of the countless cliches that have woven their way so tightly into the fabric of travel writing that you have to make a special effort not to use them.
  2. Strive for fresh words and images

Writing About Science

  1. Imagine science writing as an upside-down pyramid. Start at the bottom with the one fact  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. There’s no limit to how wide the pyramid can become, but your readers will understand the broad implications only if they start with one narrow fact.

On Style

  1. Every art form has a core of verities that survive the fickleness of time. 
  2. Cliches are the kiss of death. Cliches are the enemy of taste.
  3. A writer with an ear for language will reach for fresh imagery and avoid phrases that are trite.
  4. Writing that will endure tends to consist of words that are short and strong; words that sedate are words of three, four and five syllables, mostly of Latin origin, many of them ending in “ion” and embodying a vague concept. 
  5. After verbs, plain nouns are your strongest tools; they resonate with emotion. 
  6. But ultimately eloquence runs on a deeper current. It moves us with what it leaves unsaid, touching off echoes in what we already know from our reading, our religion and our heritage. Eloquence invites us to bring some part of ourselves to the transaction. 

Enjoyment, fear and confidence

  1. Writers have to jump-start themselves at the moment of performance, no less than actors and dancers and painters and musicians.

The Tyranny of the Final Product

  1. Writing is related to character. If your values are sound, your writing will be sound. It all begins with intention. Figure out what you want to do and how you want to do it, and work your way with humanity and integrity to the completed article. Then you’ll have something to sell. 

A Writer’s Decisions

  1. Writing is linear and sequential, that logic is the glue that holds it together, that tension must be maintained from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next and from one section to the next, and that narrative — good old-fashioned storytelling is what should pull your readers along without their noticing the tug. The only thing they should notice is that you have made a sensible planter your journey. Every step should seem inevitable.

Write as well as you can 

  1. You must find some way to elevate your act of writing into an entertainment. Usually this means giving the reader an enjoyable surprise. Any number of devices will do the job: humorous, anecdote, paradox, an unexpected quotation, a powerful fact, an outlandish detail, a circuitous approach, and elegant arrangement of words. These seeming amusements in fact become your “style”. When we say we like a writer’s style, what we mean is that we like his personality as he expresses it on paper. 

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