On Writing Well by William Zinsser

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

The Book in a Few Sentences

My favorite nonfiction writing book. In-depth coverage of the mechanics and methods of great nonfiction writing, the different types - business, travel, interviewing, etc - and attitudes like voice, confidence, and overcoming fear. Excellent handbook for new and seasoned writers, bloggers and journalists alike.

On Writing Well summary

This is my book summary of On Writing Well by William Zinsser. My summary and notes include the key lessons and most important insights from the book.


My purpose is to make myself and my experience available.  If readers connect with my book it’s because they don’t think they’re hearing from an English professor.  They’re hearing from a working writer.

I don’t know what still newer marvels will make writing twice as easy in the next 30 years.  but I do know they won’t make writing twice as good.  That will still require plain old hard thinking - what E.B. White was doing in his boathouse - and the plain old tools of the English language.

Part 1 Principles

1 The Transaction

  • I then said that writing wasn’t easy and wasn’t fun.  It was hard and lonely, and the words seldom just flowed.
  • I then said that rewriting is the essence of writing.  I pointed out that professional writers rewrite their sentences over and over and then rewrite what they have rewritten.
  • I then said that the professional writer must establish a daily schedule and stick to it.  I said that writing is a craft, not an art, and that the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself.  He is also going broke.
  • There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of methods, and any method that helps you to say what you want to say is the right method for you.  
  • But all of them [writers] are tense.  They are driven by a compulsion to put some part of themselves on paper, and yet they don’t just write what comes naturally.  They sit down to commit an act of literature, and the self who emerges on paper is far stiffer than the person who sat down to write.  The problem is to find the real man or woman behind the tension.
  • Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is.  
  • What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field.  
  • The most important qualities that this book will go in search of:  humanity and warmth.  Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next.  

2 Simplicity

  • Clutter is the disease of American writing.  Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important.
  • But the secret to 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. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.
  • Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.  It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English.  
  • Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say?
  • Good writing doesn’t come naturally, though most people tend to think it does.
  • Writing is hard work.  If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.

3 Clutter

  • Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds.
  • 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.
  • “Experiencing” is one of the worst clutterers.  Even your dentist will ask if you are experiencing any pain.  If he had his own kid in the chair he would say, “Does it hurt?”
  • Clutter is political correctness gone amok.
  • 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) and hundreds more.
  • Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.
  • Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly.  Be grateful for everything you can throw away.  Reexamine each sentence you put on paper.  Is every word doing new work?  Can any thought be expressed with more economy?  Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful?

4 Style

  • You have to strip your writing down before you can build it back up.  
  • This is the problem of writers who set out deliberately to garnish their prose.  You lose whatever it is that makes you unique.  
  • Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine.  Therefore a fundamental rule is:  be yourself.
  • No rule, however, is harder to follow.  It requires writers to do two things that by their metabolism are impossible.  They must relax, and they must have confidence.  
  • A writer will do anything to avoid the act of writing. I can testify from my newspaper days that the number of trips to the water cooler per reporter-hour far exceeds the body’s needs for fluids.
  • Some days will go better than others.  Some will go so badly that you’ll despair of every writing again.  We all have many of those days and will have many more.
  • 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 retains its humanity.  
  • 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.  

5 The Audience

  • You are writing for yourself.  You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for.  If you lose the dullards back in the dust, you don’t want them anyway.
  • Just as it takes time to find yourself as a person, it takes time to find yourself as a stylist, and even then your style will change as you grow older.
  • But whatever your age, be yourself when you write.  
  • Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation.  If you’re not a person who says “indeed” or “moreover”…please don’t write it.
  • The secret of his [H.L. Mencken] popularity - aside from his pyrotechnical use of the American language - was that he was writing for himself and didn’t give a damn what the reader might think.  

6 Words

  • 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 race in writing is not to the swift but to the original.
  • Writing is learned by imitation.  
  • Good writers of prose must be part poet, always listening to what they write.  
  • Such considerations of sound and rhythm should go into everything you write.  If all your sentences move at the same plodding gait, which even you recognize as deadly but don’t know how to cure, read them aloud.  (I write entirely by ear and read everything aloud before letting it go out into the world.)

7 Usage

  • It no longer takes a panel of experts to notice that jargon is flooding our daily life and language.  President Carter signed an executive order directing that regulations be written “simply and cleanly”.  

Part II Methods

8 Unity

  • You learn to write by writing.  The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.  
  • All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem.  
  • Unity is the anchor of good writing.  
  • “How much do I want to cover?”  “What one point do I want to make?”
  • The last two questions are especially important.  Most nonfiction writers have a definitiveness complex.  They feel that they are under some obligation - to the subject, to their honor, to the gods of writing - to make their article the last word.  
  • Therefore think small.  Decide what corner of your subject you’re going to bite off, and be content to cover it well and stop.  This is also a matter of energy and morale.  An unwieldy writing task is a drain on your enthusiasm.  Enthusiasm is the force that keeps you going and keeps the reader in your grip.  When your zest begins to ebb, the reader is the first person to know it.  
  • As for what point you want to make, 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. So decide what single point you want to leave in the reader’s mind.  
  • Some points are best made by earnestness, some by dry understatement, some by humor.  

9 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.  
  • Readers want to know - very soon - what’s in it for them.
  • Therefore your lead [opening] must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading.  It must cajole him with freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humor, 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.
  • Give more thought to adding solid detail and less to entertaining the reader.
  • Salvation often lies not in the writer’s style but in some odd fact he or she was able to discover.  
  • You should always collect more material that you will use.  Every article is strong in proportion to the surplus of details from which you can choose the few that will serve you best.  
  • Narrative is the oldest and most compelling method of holding someone’s attention; everybody wants to be told a story.
  • You should give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did your first.  Well, almost as much.  
  • 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 seem exactly right.  
  • Something I often do in my writing is to bring the story full circle - strike at the end an echo of a note that was sounded at the beginning.  It gratifies the sense of symmetry.  
  • But what usually works best is quotation. Go back through your notes and find some remark that has a sense of finality, or that’s funny, or that adds an unexpected closing detail.
  • Surprise it the most refreshing element in nonfiction writing. If something surprises you it will also surprise - and delight - the people you are writing for, especially as you conclude your story and send them on their way.  

10 Bits & Pieces

  • The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style - in clarity and vigor - is the difference between life and death for a writer.
  • Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum.  
  • Don’t say that the president of the company stepped down. Did he resign? Did he retire? Did he get fired? Be precise. Use precise verbs.
  • 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.
  • Don’t use adverbs unless they do necessary work.
  • 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.  
  • The adjective that exists solely as decoration is a self-indulgence for the writer and a burden for the reader.
  • Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw.
  • Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.
  • Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of the reader’s trust. Readers want a writer who believes in himself and in what he is saying. Don’t diminish that belief. Don’t be kind of bold.  Be bold.  
  • Among good writers it is the short sentence that predominates.  
  • Humor is best achieved by understatement.  
  • The semicolon. There is a 19th-century mustiness that hangs over the semicolon.  Therefore it should be used sparingly by modern writers of nonfiction.
  • The Dash. Somehow this invaluable tool is widely regarded as not quite proper - a bumpkin at the genteel dinner table of good English.  But it has full membership and will get you out of many tight corners.  
  • 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,” “now,” “later,” “today,” “subsequently,” and several more.  
  • I can’t overstate how much easier it is for readers to process a sentence if you start with “but” when you’re shifting direction.There’s no stronger word at the start.  It announces the total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is thereby primed for the change.  
  • Don’t start a sentence with “however” - it hangs there like a wet dishrag.  And don’t end with “however - by that time it has lost its howeverness.
  • “Yet” does almost the same job as “but,” though its meaning is closer to “nevertheless.”  
  • Your style will be warmer and truer to your personality if you use contractions like “I’ll” and “won’t” and “can’t” when they fit comfortably into what you’re writing.
  • There’s no rule against such informality - trust your ear and your instincts.  I only suggest avoiding one form - “I’d,” “he’d,” “we’d,” etc. - because “I’d” can mean both “I had” and “I would” and readers can get well into a sentence before learning which meaning it is.  Often it’s not the one they thought it was.  Also, don’t invent contractions like “could’ve”.  They cheapen your style.  
  • Always use “that” unless it makes your meaning ambiguous.  Notice that in carefully edited magazines, such as The New Yorker, “that” is by far the predominant usage.  I mention this because it is still widely believed that “which” is more correct, more acceptable, more literary.  It’s not.  In most situations, “that” is what you would naturally say and therefore what you should write.  
  • Many writers are paralyzed by the thought that they are competing with everybody else who is trying to write and presumably doing it better.  
  • Forget the competition and go at your own pace.  Your only contest is with yourself.
  • Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it.  
  • Keep your paragraphs short. Newspaper paragraphs should only be two or three sentences long.
  • Rewriting is the essence of writing well:  it’s where the game is won or lost.
  • The point is that clear writing is the result of a lot of tinkering.
  • Writing is like a good watch - it should run smoothly and have no extra points.
  • 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.
  • Read your article aloud from beginning to end, always remembering where you left the reader in the previous sentence.  
  • 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: the inevitable loose ends of every early draft. What you must do is make an arrangement–one that holds together from start to finish and that moves with economy and warmth.
  • The assumption is that fact and color are two separate ingredients. They're not; color is organic to the fact. Your job is to present the colorful fact.
  • People will write better and with more enjoyment if they write about what they care about.
  • The reader plays a major role in the act of writing and must be given room to play it.  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.
  • 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.
  • No subject is too specialized or too quirky if you make an honest connection with it when you write about it.


12 Writing About People:  The Interview

  • Nothing so animates writing as someone telling what he thinks or what he does – in his own words. His words will always be better than your words, even if you are the most elegant stylist in the land.
  • Whatever form of nonfiction you write, it will come alive in proportion to the number of “quotes" you can weave into it as you go along.
  • The interview itself is one of the most popular nonfiction forms, so you should master it early.
  • Both of you need time to get to know each other. Take a while just to chat, gauging what sort of person you're dealing with, getting him or her to trust you.
  • Never go into an interview without doing whatever homework you can. Make a list of likely questions.
  • Consider using a tape recorder in situations where you might violate the cultural integrity of the people you're interviewing.
  • Tell him to stop. Just say, “Hold it a minute, please,” and write until you catch up. What you are trying to do with your feverish scribbling is to quote him correctly, and nobody wants to be misquoted.
  • With practice you will write faster and develop some form of shorthand. As soon as the interview is over, fill in all the missing words you can remember.
  • Single out the sentences that are most important or colorful. Your job is to distill the essence.
  • Your ethical duty to the person being interviewed is to present his position accurately.
  • Your interview will be strong to the extent that you get the main points made without waste.
  • Don't change any words or let the cutting of a sentence distort the proper context of what remains.
  • If a speaker chooses his words carefully you should make it a point of professional pride to quote him verbatim. Out of the speakers conversation is ragged - if his sentences trail off, if his thoughts are disorderly, if his language is so tangled that it would be embarrass him - the writer has no choice but to clean up the English and provide the missing links.
  • I know that it's just not possible to write competent interview without some juggling and eliding of quotes; don't believe any writer who claims he never does it.

13 Writing About Places:  The Travel Article

  • Next to knowing how to write about people, you should know how to write about a place. People and places are the twin pillars on which most nonfiction is built. Every human event happens somewhere, and the reader wants to know what that somewhere was like.
  • As a writer you must keep a tight rein on your subjective self–the traveler touched by new sights and sounds and smells–and keep an objective eye on the reader.
  • The other big trap is style. Nowhere else in nonfiction do writers use such syrupy words and groaning platitudes. Adjectives you would squirm to use in conversation - “wondrous,” “dappled,” “roseate,” “fabled,” “scudding” - are common currency.  
  • First, choose your words with unusual care. Strive for fresh words and images.
  • As for substance, be intensely selective. Eliminate every such fact that is a known attribute: don't tell us that the sea had waves in the sand was white. Find details that are significant.
  • Your main task as a travel writer is to find the central idea of the place you're dealing with.
  • Whether the locale you write about is urban or rural, east or west, every place has a look, a population and a set of cultural assumptions unlike any other place. Find those distinctive traits.
  • What brings a place alive is human activity: people doing the things that give a locale its character.
  • Beware of waxing. If you're writing about places that are sacred or meaningful, leave the waxing to someone else.

14 Writing About Yourself:  The Memoir

  • What we're all looking for–what you want to see pop out of your papers–is individuality. We're looking for whatever it is that makes you unique. Write about what you know and what you think.
  • If you're a writer, give yourself permission to tell us who you are.
  • To have a decent career in this country it's important to be able to write decent English. But on the question of who you're writing for, don't be eager to please. If you write for yourself, you'll reach the people you want to write for.
  • Ego is healthy; no writer can go far without it. Egotism, however, is a drag.  
  • Memoir assumes the life and ignores most of it. The memoir writer takes us back to some corner of his or her past that was unusually intense.
  • Memoir isn't the summary of a life; it's a window into a life, very much like a photograph and its selective composition. Memoir is nourished by a writer’s ability to create a sense of place.
  • The crucial ingredient in memoir is, of course, people. Sounds and smells and songs and sleeping porches we'll take you just so far. Finally you must summon back the men and women and children who notably crossed your life.  What was it that made them memorable - what turn of mind, what crazy habits?
  • But the most interesting character in a memoir, we hope, will turn out to be the person who wrote it.  What did that man or woman learn from the hills and valleys of life?
  • The best gift you have to offer when you write a personal history is the gift of yourself. Give yourself permission to write about yourself, and have a good time doing it.

15 Science and Technology

  • Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all.
  • A tenant of journalism is that “the reader knows nothing.”  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 we 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.
  • The principle of scientific and technical writing applies to all nonfiction writing. It's the principle of leading readers who know nothing, step-by-step, to a grasp of subjects they didn't think they had an aptitude for or were afraid they were too dumb to understand.
  • One human element is yourself. Use your own experience to connect the reader to some mechanism that also touches his life.
  • Another way to help your readers understand unfamiliar facts it is to relate them to sights they are familiar with. Reduce the abstract principle to an image they can visualize.
  • Always start with too much material. Then you give your reader just enough.
  • It's not necessary to be a "writer" to write well.

16 Business Writing:  Writing in Your Job

  • You only have to remember that readers identify with people, not with abstractions like “profitability”.
  • My four articles of faith: clarity, simplicity, brevity and humanity.
  • There is a deep yearning for human contact.
  • Managers at every level are prisoners of the notion that a simple style reflects a simple mind. Actually a simple style is a result of hard work and hard thinking; a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too arrogant, or too dumb, or too lazy to organize his thoughts.
  • Remember: "I" is the most interesting element in any story.
  • If you work for an institution, whatever your job, whatever your level, be yourself when you write. You will stand out as a real person among the robots.

17 Sports

  • The best sportswriters know this. They avoid the exhaustive synonyms and strive for freshness elsewhere in their sentences.
  • Never be afraid to repeat the players name and to keep the details simple.
  • Look for this human bond. Remember that athletes are men and women who become part of our lives during the season, acting out our dreams or filling some other need for us, and we want that bond to be honored.
  • If you want to write about sports, remember that the men and women you're writing about are doing something immensely difficult, and they have their pride. You, too, are doing a job that has its code of honor. One of them is that you're not the story.

18 Writing About the Arts:  Critics and Columnists

  • True wit, however, is rare, and a thousand barbed arrows falls at the feet of the archer for every one that flies.
  • So don't be deluded that criticism is an easy route to glory. Nor does the job carry as much power as widely supposed.
  • Music critics have almost no power.
  • Reviewers write for a newspaper or a popular magazine, and what they cover is primarily an industry.
  • As a reviewer or your job more to report than to make an aesthetic judgment.
  • One is that critics should like - or, better still, love - the medium they are reviewing.
  • A third principle is to use specific detail. This avoids dealing in generalities, which, being generalities, mean nothing.
  • In book reviewing this means allowing the author’s words to do their own documentation. Don't say that Tom Wolfe's style it is gaudy and unusual. Quote a few of his gaudy and unusual sentences and let the reader see how quirky they are.
  • A final caution is to avoid the ecstatic adjectives that occupy such disproportionate space in every critic’s quiver - words like "enthralling" and “luminous.” Good criticism needs a lean and vivid style to express what you observed and what you think.
  • Therefore if you want to be a critic, steep yourself in the literature of the medium you hope to make your specialty. If you want to be a theater critic, see every possible play - the good and the bad, old old and the new. Only then can you place every new play or musical with an older tradition and tell the pioneer from the imitator. We like good critics as much for their personality as for their opinions.
  • Critics should be among the first to notify us when the truths we hold to be self-evident cease to be true.
  • One lubricant in criticism is humor.
  • What is crucial for you as the writer is to express your opinions firmly.

19 Humor

  • Humor is the secret weapon of the nonfiction writer. It’s secret because so few writers realize that humor is often their best tool - and sometimes their only tool - for making an important point.
  • If this strikes you as a paradox, you're not alone. Writers of humor live with the knowledge that many of their readers don't know what they're trying to do.
  • The heightening of some crazy truth–to a level where it will be seen as crazy–is the essence of what serious humorists are trying to do.
  • Sermons are the death of humor. The writer must find some comic device–satire, parity, Irony, lampoon, nonsense - that he can use to disguise his serious point.
  • Trust the sophistication of readers who do know what you're doing, and don't worry about the rest. Humorists operate on a deeper current than most people suspect. They must be willing to go against the grain, to say with the populace and the president may not want to hear.
  • Humor is elusive and subjective. No two people think the same things are funny, and a piece that one magazine will reject as a dud is often published by another that finds it a jewel. The reasons for rejection are equally elusive.
  • One of the classic functions of humor: to deflect anger into a channel where we can laugh at frailty instead of railing against it.
  • But there's no law that says humor has to make a point. Pure nonsense is a joy forever.
  • Enjoyment, finally, is what all humorists must convey - the idea that they are having a terrific time.
  • Another function of the humorist is to represent himself or herself as the victim or dunce, helpless in most situations. It's therapy for readers, enabling them to feel superior to writer, or at least to identify with a fellow victim. A humorist who deals with ordinary life never runs out of material.

Part IV Attitudes

20 The Sound of Your Voice

  • Don't alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page, a voice that's enjoyable not only in its musical line but in its avoidance of sounds that would cheapen its tone: breeziness and condescension in clichés.
  • But the pathetic thing about the breezy style is that it's harder to read than good English. In the writer's attempt to ease the readers journey he has littered the path with obstacles: cheap slang, shoddy sentences, windy philosophizing.
  • But readers will stop reading you if they think you are talking down to them. Nobody wants to be patronized.
  • For writers and other creative artists, knowing what not to do is a major component of taste.
  • Taste is an invisible current that runs through writing, and you should be aware of it.
  • Writing is the expression of every persons individuality, and we know what we like when comes along.
  • Cliché's are the enemy of taste. Freshness is crucial. Taste chooses words that have surprise, strength and precision.
  • Does this mean that taste can be learned? Yes and no. Perfect taste, like perfect pitch, is a gift from God. But a certain amount can be acquired. The trick is to study writers who have it. Never hesitate to imitate another writer. Imitation is part of the creative process for anyone learning an art or craft.
  • This is especially true in writing. Find the best writers in the fields that interest you and read their work aloud. Get their voice and their taste into your ear - their attitude towards language. Don't worry that by imitating them you'll lose your own voice and your own identity. Soon enough you'll shed those skins and become who you are supposed to become.
  • Another part of the answer lies in simplicity. 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.
  • After verbs, plain nouns are your strongest tools; they resonate with emotion.

21 Enjoyment, Fear and Confidence

  • Writing is such lonely work that I try to keep myself cheered up. If something strikes me as funny in the act of writing, I throw it in just to amuse myself. 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 know that a fair chunk of the population has no sense of humor - no idea that there are people in the world trying to entertain them.
  • "The reader has to feel that the writer is feeling good.” ~ S. J. Perelman
  • With each rewrite I try to force my personality onto the material.
  • One way to generate confidence is to write about subjects that interest you and that you care about.
  • Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That's the whole point of becoming a writer. I've used writing to give myself an interesting life and a continuing education. If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write. Learning is a tonic.
  • If you want your writing to convey enjoyment, write about people you respect.
  • The moral for non-fiction 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.
  • If you master the tools of the trade – the fundamentals of interviewing and of orderly construction – and if you bring to the assignment your general intelligence and your humanity, you can write about any subject. That's your ticket to an interesting life.
  • Trust your common sense to figure out what you need to know, and don't be afraid to ask a dumb question. If the expert thinks you're dumb, that's his problem.
  • “That's interesting." If you find yourself saying it, pay attention and follow your nose. Trust your curiosity to connect with the curiosity of your readers.
  • "Have I seen everything?" Often you'll get your best material after you put your pencil away, in the chitchat of leave-taking.

22 The Tyranny of the Final Product

  • This fixation on the finished article causes writers into a lot of trouble, deflecting them from all the earlier decisions that have to be made to determine its shape and voice and content. It's a very American kind of trouble. 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.
  • As an editor and a teacher I found that the most untaught and underestimated skill in nonfiction writing is how to organize a long article: how to put the jigsaw puzzle together.
  • By far the biggest problem was compression: how to distill a coherent narrative from a huge and tangled mass of experiences and feelings and memories.
  • The quest is one of the oldest themes in storytelling, an act of faith we never get tired of hearing about. Moral: any time you can tell a story in the form of a quest or a pilgrimage you'll be ahead of the game. Readers bearing their own associations will do some of your work for you.
  • Intention is what we wish to accomplish with our writing. 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.

23 A Writer’s Decisions

  • Learning how to organize a long article is just as important as learning how to write a clear and pleasing sentence. All your clear and pleasing sentences will 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 their noticing the tug.
  • The hardest decision about any article is how to begin it. The lead must grab the reader with a provocative idea and continue with each paragraph to hold him or her in a tight grip, gradually adding information.
  • Notice how simple those five sentences are: plain declarative sentences, not a comma in sight. Each sentence contains one thought – and one only. Readers can process only one idea at the time, and they do it and linear sequence.
  • Much of the trouble writers get into comes from trying to make one sentence do too much work. Never be afraid to break a long sentence into two short ones, or even three.
  • Don't give readers of a magazine piece more information than they require.
  • Now, what do your readers want to know next? Ask yourself that question after every sentence.
  • 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. This means giving them some idea of who you are.
  • Be on the watch for funny or self-serving quotes and use them with gratitude.
  • Banality is the enemy of good writing; the challenge is to not write like everybody else. If you look long enough you can usually find a proper name or a metaphor that will bring those dull but necessary facts to life.
  • Readers enjoy any effort to gratify their sense of rhythm and cadence.
  • No writing decision is too small to be worth a large expenditure of time. Both you and the reader know it when your finicky labor is rewarded by a sentence coming out right.
  • That asterisk is a signpost. It announces to the reader that you have organized your article in a certain way that a new phase is about to begin–perhaps a change of chronology, such as a flashback, or a change of subject, or emphasis or tone.
  • “What is the piece really about?” (Not just “What is the piece about?”) Fondness for material you've gone to a lot of trouble to gather isn't a good enough reason to include it if it's not central to the story you've chosen to tell. Self – discipline bordering on masochism is required.
  • The only consolation for the loss of so much material is that it isn't totally lost; it remains in your writing as an intangible that the reader can sense.  Readers should always feel that you know more about your subject than you’ve put in writing.
  • One of the oldest strains in travel writing and humor writing is the eternal credulity of the narrator. Used in moderation, making yourself gullible – or downright stupid –gives the reader enormous pleasure feeling superior.
  • What I'm after is resonance; it can do a great deal of emotional work that writers can't achieve on their own.
  • A crucial decision about a piece of writing is where to end it. Often the story will tell you where it wants to stop.
  • When you get such a message from your material – when your story tells you it's over, regardless of what subsequently happened – look for the door.
  • As a postscript, there's one last decision I'd like to mention. It has to do with the nonfiction writer’s need to make his or her own luck. An exhortation I often use to keep myself going is "Get on the plane.”
  • Getting on the plane has taking me to unusual stories all over the world and all over America. That isn't to say I'm not nervous when I leave for the airport; I always am – that's part of the deal. (A little nervousness gives writing an edge.) But I'm always replenished when I get back home.
  • As a non-fiction writer you must get on the plane. If the subject interests you, go after it.
  • Decide what you want to do. Then decide to do it. Then do it.

24 Writing Family History and Memoir

  • Don’t try to be a “writer.” Be yourself and your readers will follow you anywhere. Try to commit an act of writing and your readers will jump overboard to get away. Your product is you. The crucial transaction in memoir and personal history is the transaction between you and your remembered experiences and emotions.
  • The strongest memoirs, I think, are those that preserve the unity of a remembered time and place, which recall what it was like to be a child for an adolescent in a world of adults contending with life's adversities.
  • When you write your family history, be a recording angel and record everything your descendants might want to know.
  • Should I leave out things that might offend or hurt my relatives? Don't worry about that problem in advance. Your first job is to get your story down as you remember it – now. Then take up the privacy issue.
  • Finally, it's your story–you're the one who has done all the work.
  • If you make an honest transaction with your own humanity and with the humanity of the people who crossed your life, no matter how much pain they caused you or you caused them, readers will connect with your journey.
  • Now comes the hard part: how to organize the damn thing. Most people embarking on a memoir are paralyzed by the size of the task. What to put it in?
  • Decide to write about your mother’s side of the family or your father’s side, but not both.
  • Remember that you are the protagonist in your memoir – the tour guide. You must find a narrative trajectory for the story you want to tell and never relinquish control. This means leaving out of your memoir many people who don't need to be there. Like siblings.
  • Look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you still remember them it's because they contain a universal truth that your readers will recognize from their own life.
  • Many of the chapters in my memoir are about small episodes that were not objectively"important" but that were important to me. Because they were important to me they also struck an emotional chord with readers, touching a universal truth that was important to them.
  • Remember this when you write your memoir and worry that your story isn't big enough to interest anyone else. The small stories that still stick in your memory have a resonance of their own. Trust them.
  • Remember: your biggest stories will 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.
  • Tackle your life in manageable chunks.
  • Then, one day, take all your entries out of their folder and spread them on the floor. (The floor is often a writer’s best friend.)

25 Write as Well as You Can

  • Quality is its own reward.  
  • It was from the world of business that I found my craftsman’s ethic, and over the years, when I found myself endlessly rewriting what I had endlessly rewritten, determined to write better than everybody who was competing for the same space.
  • Besides wanting to write as well as possible, I wanted to write as enthrallingly as possible.
  • 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: humor, anecdote, paradox, an unexpected quotation, a powerful fact, and outlandish detail, a circuitous approach, an elegant arrangement of words.
  • Given a choice between two traveling companions – and a writer is someone who asks us to travel with them – we will usually choose the one who we think will make an effort to brighten the trip.
  • We know that verbs have more vigor than nouns, that active verbs are better than passive verbs, that short words and sentences are easier to read the long ones, that concrete details are easier to process than vague abstractions.
  • Most nonfiction writers will do well to cling to the ropes of simplicity and clarity. We may be given new technologies like the computer to ease the burden of composition, but on the whole we know what we need to know. We're all working with the same words and the same principles.
  • If you would like to write better than everybody else, you have to want to write better than everybody else. You must take an obsessive pride in the smallest details of your craft.
  • After I submit an article I protect it fiercely. Several magazine editors have told me I'm the only writer they know who cares what happens to his piece after he gets paid for it.
  • Yet to defend what you've written is a sign that you are alive. I'm a known crank on this issue–I fight over every semicolon. But editors put up with me because they can see that I'm serious. In fact, my crankiness has brought me more work than it has driven away.
  • Editors with an unusual assignment often thought of me because they knew I would do it with unusual care. They also knew they would get the article on time and that it would be accurate. Remember that the craft of nonfiction writing involves more than writing. It also means being reliable. Editors will properly drop a writer they can't count on.
  • What a good editor brings to a piece of writing is an objective eye that the writer has long since lost, and there is no end of ways in which an editor can improve a manuscript: pruning, shaping, clarifying, tidying of inconsistencies in tense and pronoun and location and tone, noticing all the sentences that could be read two different ways, dividing awkward long sentences two short ones, putting the writer back on the main road if he has strayed down the side path, building bridges where the writer has lost the reader by not paying attention to his transitions, questioning matters of judgment and taste.
  • For all these acts of salvation, editors can't be thanked fervently enough.
  • A good editor likes nothing better than a piece of copy he hardly has to touch.
  • Clarity is what every editor owes the reader. An editor should never allow something to get into print that he doesn't understand.
  • But editors will do what writers allow them to do, especially if time is short. Writers conspire in their own humiliation, allowing their piece to be rewritten by an editor to serve his own purposes. With every surrender they remind editors that they can be treated like hired help.
  • But finally the purposes that writers serve must be their own. What you write is yours and nobody else's. Take your talent as far as you can and guard it with your life. Only you know how far that is; no editor knows.
  • Writing well means believing in your writing and believing in yourself, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel. You will write only as well as you make yourself write.
  • I marveled at how effortless he [Joe DiMaggio] looked because what he did could only be achieved by great daily effort. A reporter once asked him how he managed to play so well so consistently, and he said: "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."