On Writing Well

by William Zinsser

Part One

Principles
I know that the main topic of the book is non-fiction writing, but I've discovered that there are many points Zinsser makes that are equally valid for fiction writing. If nothing else, some of the points he makes are wonderful tips for writing dialogue. The chapters themselves aren't very long, by the way. I've just picked up the things I thought most important and left most of the examples and descriptions in the book.
Ch. 1 - The Transaction
  1. Writing is personal. There is no right way or wrong way to write. Use whatever works best for you.
  2. Don't be afraid to show your enthusiasm for a subject. The only way you can convince a reader to get excited about your subject, to care about what you're trying to tell him, is to get excited about it yourself.
  3. Good writing has life, not gimmicks. Not every one reads the National Enquirer or its ilk. Not everyone wants to read it.
Ch. 2 - Simplicity
  1. The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its bare bones. Consider your sentences to be like a colouring book drawing. Use your words to draw the outline and let the reader fill in the colour.
  2. If a reader is lost or bored, the fault is not the reader's but the author's. It's carelessness on the part of the author.
  3. Don't bar hop your sentences. Finish your drink in one bar before you move onto the next one down the street. Start and finish one idea in a paragraph and then move on to the next sequential idea. Not only do the ideas have to be linked sequentially, but so do the sentences that cover each idea.
Ch. 3 - Clutter
  1. Fighting clutter in your writing is like fighting weeds in the garden. It never ends.
  2. Mind the prepositions. Make sure that none are falling off the end of a sentence and that they match in voice and number. If you use prepositions, however, make sure that the sentence is still clear. If John and Mark have an 'argument about something he had done', make sure the reader knows who he is.
  3. Be yourself in your writing. KISS!
  4. "Clutter is political correctness run amok." Wm. Zinsser
  5. Neither truisms nor clichés are 'writing'. Avoid the pompous, the pretentious and the faddish. **Editing tip: When editing, don't cross out the clutter, bracket it. Bracketing allows you to see what needs to come out without adding the negativeness of crossed out words.
Ch. 4 - Style

"Strip first - rebuild later."

Garnishing is not style. If you put on airs, your readers will see it immediately. Say what you have to say in the first draft. Say what you need to say in the next, and say what is necessary by the final draft.

  1. Relax.
  2. Have confidence in yourself, your talents and your writing.
  3. Start your story using first person, but be careful. It may be the easiest way to write, but it can also be a crutch.
  4. If you can't draft your story in first person and edit it into third, at least think in first person when you write it.
  5. Avoid wishy-washy. Say what you mean.

A thought from Wm. Zinsser:

"Leaders who bob and weave like aging boxers don't inspire confidence - or deserve it. The same thing is true of writers. 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."

Personal Notes:

Story: What the Cold Wind Blew In

In the first 'description' I had to write for my lessons, I was given a limit of 500 words. My first draft was 750 words, with a final draft of 550. In doing this, I discovered that I have trouble just 'writing down a description' of someone. People aren't just the clothes that they wear, the things that they do or the words that they say. People do and say things for reasons.

I wrote my 'description' as a story in order to show the reasons for the things that were said, done and worn. I believe the technical term is 'motivation'. While my tutor thought it excellent, I am still concerned with the length. It doesn't match the prerequisite. Worse yet, I wasn't happy with it because there was so much missing from the 'real' picture of the character. And then I realized something.

That tiny chunk out of my characters' life means something. Now, while I'm not quite sure where my characters will end up, that description is the beginning of a story. I wonder then, is the 'bare bones' of a story the description of a character or characters? Some people start their stories with an 'event idea', or a 'sentence idea'. What kind of character would say this? What kind of a character would do this or participate in this? It's an intriguing thought for me.

My second lesson carried on the story of my two main characters. This time, I'm using the point of view of the other character. It was, as Zinsser suggested, written in 3rd person, but I was thinking first person as I wrote it. I've always had problems when writing a story that involves more than one character. I get one done really well and the others are cardboard. By writing the story in short (1,000 words or so) chunks, I find that I can concentrate on each character and flesh them out. When I reintroduce the character in subsequent 'sections', I don't have to work as hard to get them to be real.

The second lesson proved to be quite a shock. Write a story of 750-1,000 words, based on the person you described in Lesson One." I normally write out my first draft by hand, edit it, edit it again as I enter it in the computer, and then print it out, edit it by hand, edit it again as I'm entering the changes into the computer, and then print the final draft. I do a word count on the first draft, my first computer draft, and on the final as it's being entered. I'd miscounted my words so my first edit included several pieces of important information that weren't included in the first version. You can imagine my shock when I discovered that I had something like 50% more words than the assignment called for!

Stripping it down was hard. My first thought was that everything is important. I managed to cut 200 words from the first version before I hit a serious snag. How to remove 250 more words? I looked at the story again and again. I hacked out the cute stuff first, the stuff that I thought added colour to the story. I hacked out things that were particular to the original event that spawned the story. Who cares what the name of the pub is? Who cares if the two main characters read the same kinds of books? I had to go right back to the beginning of the story, the description. What was I saying in the description? What idea did I have in mind when I started writing about "Maggie" and "Nick"? The overhead lightbulb managed a dim glow.

When I wrote the description, the original piece, I was describing a person. My story was about one person. My second story was about a person who happened to be in the first story, a sequel if you will. But it was still about one person. I went back through the entire story and got rid of everything that wasn't about that "one person". My story is still 50 words over the limit, but I'm much happier with it now.

For those who have trouble writing stories that fit together nicely, maybe you're looking at the wrong picture. Instead of trying to write one story, break it down into smaller stories. The method of 'story planning' that the texts try to teach me is: a story has three parts; a beginning that identifies the protagonist and his/her problem, a middle that shows the different obstacles in the way of the protagonist solving the problem and introduces the antagonist, and finally, the end, which shows the protagonist changing in some way, solving the problem and, quite often, defeating the antagonist. I have a heck of a time with that.

Or rather, I did. Each of those sections, the beginning, the middle sections, and the end, are just smaller stories joined together. If I put a word limit on each of those sections and write about 'one person', joining them together only at the end, I should have a full-blown story. It may be too large for the magazine market, but there are other possibilities. There are other parts of the magazine market that accept longer stories.

Who knows, maybe by the time I've finished all the 'little stories' about Maggie and Nick, I'll have written a novel. What an interesting way of working!


Ch. 5 - The Audience
"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." Wm. Zinsser

Snobbish? Paradox? No. It's a case of Craft versus Attitude.

  1. Attitude is how you express'you' in the writing, your personality.
  2. Craft is your command of your tool. It's like the difference between being able to paint a fence and paint the Mona Lisa.
  3. Style can take many years to develop.
  4. Work hard to master the tools of the language, then relax and say what you want to say. Be yourself. If you wouldn't say a word or phrase in public, don't say it in writing. This is how you develop your own style.
Ch. 6 - Words
  1. Journalese - The death of a fresh style.
  2. Develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning.
  3. For example, which sentence can you hear the clearest? Which one sounds better?
    1. Bacon is cooking in the pan.
    2. Bacon is frying in the pan.
    3. Bacon is sizzling in the pan.
  4. Journalese is a mixture of cheap words, made-up words, and clichés. It's a quilt of instant words stolen from other parts of speech:
    1. adjectives as nouns (greats, notables);
    2. nouns as verbs (author and to author, host and to host)
    3. chopped off nouns used as verbs (enthuse, emote);
    4. padded nouns used as verbs (beef up, fired off)
  5. Journalese is a dreary banality where no surprise awaits us in the form of an unusual word or phrase, an oblique look at the commonplace. Just as speech is learned by imitation, so is writing. Notice the words other writers use and be fussy about which ones you use.
  6. Two major works that are the mainstay of a good writer are a good dictionary and a thesaurus. Learn what words mean, where they come from and where the original word has gone. What else does a word mean? What are the differences between words that appear to be synonyms? (Three other books that are helpful are The Dictionary of Word Origins, by John Ayto, and the Reader's Digest books The Reverse Dictionary and The Family Word Finder. )
  7. Pay attention to how words sound. Readers read with their ears as well as their eyes. Rhythm and alliteration are important. A good writer of prose must still be part poet.
  8. Read your work out loud. If all your sentences move at the same plodding gait, try varying the sentence structure and lengths. Substitute a 'bon mot', an odd or fresh word, for the common one.
  9. Words are the only tools of the writer. Learn to use them with originality and care. Somebody out there is listening.
Ch. 7 - Usage
  1. Usage has no fixed boundaries. The fabric of our language is fluid, new words are added and old ones dropped. Word wizards argue over what is acceptable and what isn't. The basis of their decisions? Personal taste.
  2. The Guardians of Word Usage, a panel consisting of the best of the writing world, have two jobs. They keep the language from becoming sloppy and they help the language grow by welcoming any newcomer that brings strength or colour. Does a new word fill a real need in our language?
  3. "The pen must at length comply with the tongue." Samuel Johnson.
  4. The growing acceptance of split infinitives and prepositions at the ends of sentences only proves that formal syntax cannot rule forever over a speaker's more comfortable method of getting things said -- and it shouldn't.
  5. The American Heritage Dictionary editors, in the mid-1960's, assembled a Usage Panel to help appraise new words and dubious sentence constructions.
  6. The panel turned out to be liberal in accepting new words and phrases but conservative in grammar. They were motivated by the language's beautiful precision.
  7. Incorrect word usage will cost the writer the readers he would most like to win.
  8. New words come from political events and technological advances.
    1. We didn't have jet setters until we had aircraft with turbine engines.
    2. No one laundered money until after Watergate.
  9. Technical English, however, should be separated from good English. I am not a computer. I cannot give you either input or feedback. But we can share ideas.
  10. Good usage means using good words, usually already in existence to express yourself clearly and simply to someone else.
What I've Learned:
  1. Use words that make 'sounds'. They appeal to the ear, the eye and the imagination. They give the story life.
  2. Make your own 'clichés'. She wasn't mad as a wet hen. She came unglued.
  3. Use your experience of life as your paint, your skill with words as the brush. Just remember to use it in moderation. It's appetizer, not main course.
  4. Never say "it can't be made shorter". It can. Sometimes, though, you have to tackle the problem backwards.
  5. Describe people and places like an artist. Start with the most noticeable item, or the thing you want to be most noticeable, and work from there.
  6. Follow your eye in your words as you would in fact. Straight left to right or top to bottom is fine for police work, but most people don't think that way. Try thinking in circles, or triangles, or any shape but a straight line.
  7. If you can't find a word to describe what you mean from this century, look back. History is full of 'good words'.

- Part 2 -