On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser

Reading Time: 12 minutes

On Writing Well Book Cover


William Zinsser’s On Writing Well is the most practical guide around if you want to learn how to write better nonfiction. With a cheeky tone and demonstrated command of the craft, Zinsser shares timeless lessons and techniques for leveling up your writing game. This is one of the few books about writing that I’ve re-read over the years.

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Key Takeaways


”Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”

  • Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.
  • Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose.
  • The adjective “personal” is almost never necessary. Sentences are clear without it.
  • Say “now” or “today” instead of “currently” or “at this time.” It’s simpler.
  • It is raining” is better than “At the present time we are experiencing precipitation.”
  • “Experiencing” can be eliminated. It’s always clutter.
  • Clutter is the ponderous euphemism that turns a slum into a depressed socioeconomic area, garbage collectors into waste-disposal personnel and the town dump into the volume reduction unit.
  • Clutter is political correctness gone amok.
  • “invasion” is better than “reinforced protective reaction strike.”
  • “Verbal camouflage” is used by corporations and politicians to hide their mistakes.
  • “Clutter is the enemy. “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).
  • Put brackets around every component in a piece of writing that isn’t useful: “order up”, “smile happily” “tall skyscraper” “a bit” “sort of” “in a sense”). “Sometimes 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.


”But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”

Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. Always ask, “what am I trying to say?” and “have I said it?” Anything else is “fuzz.”


  • “You have to strip your writing down before you can build it back up.” Add style after you have the principles of clear writing down.
  • There is no style store; style is organic to the person doing the writing, as much a part of him as his hair, or, if he is bald, his lack of it.
  • Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself.
  • You often start sounding normal after the first three or four paragraphs and can throw everything away up until that point.
  • Good writers are visible just behind their words.
  • 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.

The Audience

  • The answer to “Who am I writing for?” is “You are writing for yourself.” You don’t write for the reader. You first master the tools of writing so that a reader does not get bored. Then you find ways to express yourself with the creative quirks natural to you. If the reader likes that, great, If not, great.
  • Never say anything in writing in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. If you’re not a person who says “indeed” or “moreover,” or who calls someone an individual (”he’s a fine individual”), please don’t write it.
  • Any writer who uses “ain’t” and “tendentious” in the same sentence, who quotes without using quotation marks, knows what he’s doing.


  • Words are the only tool a writer has. They should be treated with care.
  • “Writing is learned by imitation.” – Figure out how great writers do what they do.
  • Pay attention to how words sound. Good writing has rhythm.
  • “Serene” and “tranquil” have similar meanings, but one is soft while they other is course.
  • When your writing runs at the same pace and becomes dull: See if you can gain variety by reversing the order of a sentence, or by substituting a word that has freshness or oddity, or by altering the length of your sentences so they don’t all sound as if they came out of the same machine. An occasional short sentence can carry a tremendous punch.


  • Language is a fabric that changes from one week to another. The laws of usage are relative, bending with the taste of the lawmaker.
  • I think a sentence is a fine thing to put a preposition at the end of.
  • Don’t use myself; it’s prissy.
  • “too” is not a synonym for “very”, but more appropriate with humor. “He didn’t feel too much like going shopping” vs. “He was not too happy when she ignored him.”
  • There are subtle distinctions that people often get wrong.
    • “infer” doesn’t mean “imply”
    • “reference” is not “allusion”
    • “Connive” is not “conspire”
    • “compare with” is not “compare to”
    • “comprise” means include
  • Don’t use “into” (She’s into something)
  • Input and feedback can be replaced with “my ideas” and “what he thinks”


  • You learn to write by writing.
  • All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem.
  • Unity is the anchor of good writing.
    • Unity of pronoun: First person, third person, etc.
    • Unity of tense: Write principally in one tense to the reader, with room for switching between them.
    • Unity of mood: Don’t bounce around to many personalities, a failure of most travel writing. Sticking to a conversational tone, can eliminate a bouncing back between an excited traveler, a brochure writer, and a medical practitioner in describing certain details
  • Leave the reader with one provocative thought he or she did not have before

Writing About Places: The Travel Article

  • You’ll need to evoke the mood of a whole neighborhood or town to give texture to the story you’re telling. That’s built on the descriptive detail.
  • Readers don’t want to hear everything that happened. They only want to hear some. “What made his trip different from everybody else’s? What can he tell us that we don’t already know?”
  • The details you select must be significant. Don’t get lost in all of the ways you were touched by new sights and sounds or catch up in groaning platitudes. “The city has its own attractiveness,” means nothing.
  • The key is to first choose your words with unusual care. Then, be intensely selective with the details. Saying that a sea had waves or the sand was white is obvious. Find details that are significant and that help bring shape to your narrative.
  • “This is the California where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion; but hard to buy a book…The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past.”
  • You need to find the central idea of the place you’re writing about. For example, Rio is a city that evoked feelings within me, bringing me away from the logic that drove my life. That’s what makes it special, not that it has a nice landscape.
  • Don’t write about what you extract from a place, but rather what a place extracts from you. What are the new sights or experiences that “touch off thoughts that otherwise wouldn’t have entered the writer’s mind.”
  • If travel is broadening, it should broaden more than just our knowledge of how a Gothic cathedral looks or how the French make wine. It should generate a whole constellation of ideas about how men and women work and play, raise their children, worship their gods, live and die.
  • The church was very exciting. It took a long time for me to disengage myself from this excitement, and on the blindest, most visceral level, I never really have, and never will.
  • Ask yourself what kind of quest people who visit a particular place are on.

Writing About Places: The Memoir

  • Write about what you know and what you think.
  • If you write for yourself, you’ll reach the people you want to write for.
  • Make sure every component in your memoir is doing useful work. Write about yourself, by all means, with confidence and with pleasure. But see that all the details – people, places, events, anecdotes, ideas, emotions – are moving your story steadily along.
  • Be narrow in your focus. “Unlike autobiography, which spans an entire life, memoir assumes the life and ignores most of it.” “Memoir isn’t the summary of life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.”
  • Memoir is the art of investing the truth.
  • The most interesting character in the memoir should be the person who wrote it.
  • When writing about yourself, make sure you have a good time doing it.

The Lead and the Ending

  • 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. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead.
  • Readers want to know early on what’s in it for them. You need to hook them. That hook can be a few sentences, or a slow build.
  • “when I found his bark I studied it as intently as if I had come upon the Rosetta Stone.”
  • Always collect more material than you can use. Then use the most interesting bits.
  • You should give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did to your first. Well, almost as much. A bad closing ruins an otherwise good article. 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.
  • One way to end is to bring the story full circle. Don’t say “In conclusion,” Bring a natural closing point that has some element of surprise or a desire to learn more. A quirky quote is a good way to leave the reader thinking.

Bits & Pieces


  • Use active verbs. Passive constructions sap the reader’s energy and leave doubt. “Joe saw him” > “He was seen by Joe”
  • 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.
  • Don’t “set up” a business that you can “start” or “launch.”
  • Use precise verbs. If you say “the president stepped down,” we don’t know what happened. Did he resign? Did he retire? Did he get fired?


Most adverbs are unnecessary. Redundant adverbs weaken strong verbs. “effortlessly easy”, “totally flabbergasted” “clenching teeth tightly” “slightly spartan” – all of these weaken the verbs.


  • Most adjectives are also unnecessary. The concept is often already described in the noun. “precipitous cliffs” and “lacy spiderwebs” “yellow daffodils” or “brownish dirt”
  • Adjectives are used for flavor, but they make sentences unreadably long.
  • Using adjectives more sparsely will give them more weight. “He looked at the gray sky and the black clouds and decided to sail back to the harbor.” the colors are the reason for the decision, so they’re helpful.

Little qualifiers

  • Eliminate small qualifiers. “a bit” “a little” “sort of” “kind of” “rather” “quite” “very” “too” “pretty much” “in a sense”. “They dilute your style and your persuasiveness.”
  • “And yet, on balance, affirmative action has, I think, been a qualified success.” – 5 hedging words in one sentence.
  • Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.
  • Qualifiers diminish the reader’s trust by making you seem like you don’t believe in yourself.


  • The period. Make sentences shorter. Long sentences can be broken down into shorter ones.
  • Exclamation point. Don’t use it unless you must.
  • The semicolon. Use it sparingly as it brings the reader to a hault.
  • The dash. Use the dash in one of two ways. “One is to amplify or justify in the second part of the sentence a thought you stated in the first part.” “We decided to keep going – it was only 100 miles more and we could get there before dinner.” The other way is to use two dashes that set apart a parenthetical thought within a longer sentence. “She told me to get in the car – she had been after me all summer to have a haircut – and we drove silently into town.”
  • The colon. Use it basically for introducing an itemized list.

Mood changers

  • “Learn to alert the reader as soon as possible to any change in mood from the previous sentence.” – “But” “yet” “however” “still” “instead” “now” “later” and others can do the job. “But” is particularly good for announcing a transition. If you need to use another word, however, “however” will work well if put in the middle of a sentence. You can use these words to replace long sentences that repeat information. “Despite the fact that all these dangers had been pointed out to him” can be “Yet he decided to go.”
  • You also want to make sure readers are oriented with time. “Meanwhile” “now” “today” and “later” can help


Using them can make sentences less stiff than others. But avoid the “I’d” “he’d” “we’d” variety as they can mean I had and I would. Don’t invent new contractions like “could’ve”


  • “When you use a quotation, start the sentence with it. Don’t lead up to it with a vapid phrase saying what the man said.
  • BAD: Mr. Smith said that he liked to “go downtown once a week and have lunch with some of my old friends.”
  • GOOD: “I usually like to go downtown once a week,” Mr. Smith said, “and have lunch with some of my old friends.” The second sentence has vitality, the first one is dead.
  • Nothing is deader than to start a sentence with a “Mr. Smith said” construction—it’s where many readers stop reading. If the man said it, let him say it and get the sentence off to a warm, human start. But be careful where you break the quotation. Do it as soon as you naturally can, so that the reader knows who is talking, but not where the break will destroy the rhythm or the meaning.”

That and which

Use “that,” except for when the sentence needs a comma to achieve its precise meaning. Then you can use “which.” The house, which has a red roof.


Avoid overstatement. You lose credibility and bore a reader. A mess after a party should not be described as “it looked like an atomic bomb had gone off.”

Writing is hard

”Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”

A writer will do anything to avoid the act of writing.


Surprise is the most refreshing element in nonfiction writing.


If you’re going to dictate, consider that these sentences tend to be pompous, sloppy, and redundant. You’ll need to do heavy editing to make them work.

The Quickest Fix

If you’re stuck on a sentence, the solution may be to eliminate it. If no rewriting works, ask “Do I need it at all?”


Writing is visual – it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain. Thinking in paragraphs, especially short ones, can help. Don’t make them so short as to insult the reader.


  • Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost.
  • When you read your writing aloud with these connecting links in mind you’ll hear a dismaying number of places where you lost the reader, or confused the reader, or failed to tell him the one fact he needed to know, or told him the same thing twice.

Trust Your Material

Trust the reader to draw conclusions. They need space to think for themselves. “Don’t annoy your readers by over-explaining – by telling them something they already know or can figure out.”

One provocative thought

”…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 Sound of Your Voice

  • Don’t try to be “breezy” or easy-going. This often leads to “cheap slang, shoddy sentences, windy philosophizing.”
  • Cliches are the enemy of taste. They bore the reader.
  • My other question raised a more subtle mystery: what is the line that separates eloquence from bombast?

Enjoyment, Fear, and Confidence

  • If you’re having fun while writing, so will some of the readers. Just like an actor going on stage, you have to turn on the switch, even when you’re not up for it.
  • I’ve used writing to give myself an interesting life and a continuing education. Writing is a tool to keep you interested in living. “Learning is a tonic.” It’s a ticket to an interesting life.

The Tyranny of the Final Product

  • We are a culture that worships the winning result…less glamorous gains made along the way — learning, wisdom, growth, confidence, dealing with failure — aren’t given the same respect because they can’t be given a grade.” There’s value beyond being paid or finishing something. The process is valuable.
  • Americans get squeamish at any mention of religion.
  • But even if it never gets published,” he said, “I’m glad I did it.”

A Writer’s Decisions

  • Organizing your piece is just as important as writing clear and pleasing sentences. Even wonderful sentences fall apart “if you don’t keep remembering that 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 noticing the tug.”
  • A city with streets of sand is a city at the edge.
  • Before writing the next sentence, ask your readers: What do they want to know next?
  • In travel writing you should never forget that you are the guide. It’s not enough just to take your readers on a trip; you must take them on your trip. Make them identify with you — with your hopes and apprehensions.
  • Used in moderations, making yourself gullible — or downright stupid — gives the reader the enormous pleasure of feeling superior.
  • The real climax of the story was not finding the salt caravan; it was finding the timeless hospitality of the people who live in the Sahara.
  • “Get on the plane.” is a useful metaphor for exploring your curiosity and seeing where it leads.

Writing Family History and Memoir

  • Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is to come to terms with your life narrative. Another is to work through some of life’s hardest knocks —loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace.
  • Her drive to fulfill the broken dreams of her marriage never faltered. But she had the German penchant for telling people off, and she died alone at 81, having scolded away all her friends.
  • That was my remembered truth, and that’s how I wrote it.
  • Should you write from the point of view of the child you once were or the adult you are now? Both options lead to powerful memoirs, but you need to choose one.
  • What about the privacy of the people I write about? Don’t worry about that problem in advance.
  • Don’t air all of your old grievances in your writing. Don’t reveal too much. It’s more powerful to share the good and bad times, while showing how you remained strong and avoided resentment.”
  • Think small. Don’t try to include every important event or detail of your life. Narrow in on a subset of stories that reveal who you are and what that means. “I never felt that my memoir had to include all the important things that ever happened to me—a common temptation when old people sit down to summarize their life journey.”
  • Think about how a story conveys a universal truth. A reader may not care about your particular favorite childhood toy, but everyone has had a favorite toy and can relate to that. “Remember: Your biggest stories often have less to do with their subject than with their significance—not what you did in a certain situation, but how that situation affected you and shaped the person you became.”

Write as Well as You Can

  • Try to write as entertainingly as possible. “Any number of devices will do the job: humor, anecdote, paradox, an unexpected quotation, a powerful fact, an outlandish detail, a circuitous approach, an elegant arrangement of words.”
  • If you would like to write better than everybody else, you have to want to write better than everybody else.
  • Editors can harm your work in two ways: altering style and altering content. Don’t let them do that. “Clarity is what every editor owes the reader.”

Writing About People

Don’t strain to find synonyms for “he said.” It’s fine to use them to convey the shifting nature of a conversation. “He pointed out,” “he explained” “he replied,” “he added”

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