On Writing Well

by William Zinsser

Part Two - Methods.

Ch. 8 - Unity
  1. The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.
  2. All writings involve solving a problem and you can expect to have both "tree stump stupid" and "Shakespeare genius" days.
  3. Unity satisfies the reader's subconscious need for order and reassures them that someone knows what's going on.
  4. Types of unity:
    1. Pronoun: 1st person, or 3rd? 2nd person is difficult, but not impossible.
    2. Tense: Past or present? (the whole purpose of tenses) is to allow us to deal with all aspects of time, from the past to the hypothetical future.
    3. Mood:
      1. Any tone is acceptable, but only use one.
      2. Casual or formal? Serious or not?
      3. Consider your attitude toward the material.
  5. Questions to ask yourself:
    1. What am I? Reporter, sage, average joe?
    2. What pronoun and tense?
    3. What style? Impersonal report? Formal personal? Casual personal?
    4. What attitude? Involved? Detached? Judgmental? Ironic? Amused?
    5. How much do I want to cover?
    6. What one point do I want to make?
  6. No article is ever "The Last Word" on a subject.
  7. Decide what aspect of your subject you want to cover, cover it well, and then stop.
  8. Every successful non-fiction article leaves its readers with one thought worth thinking about that they didn't have before.
  9. No writing is cast in stone, however. Writing makes people think and sometimes the new trains of thought are more comfortable than the old. Don't be afraid to take another route. You'll know if you can trust the new material.
Ch. 9 - The Lead and the Ending
The Lead
  1. The first sentence is the most important. Each progressive sentence should tug the reader further into the story until he is "hooked".
  2. How long is a lead? Some leads work well as only one sentence. Others may take several pages. The only way to know is to ask: Does it work?
  3. The lead captures your reader and forces him to read further. A surprise, humour, a question, novelty or paradox, an unusual or outrageous idea, an interesting fact -- it doesn't matter what you use to yank your reader into the story -- so long as it works.
  4. The hard part of the lead is that it must provide details of why the piece was written and why the reader should continue.
  5. Each paragraph should amplify the one before, with the last sentence leading to the next paragraph. Make the reader "feel" with it and you've got him hooked for at least one more paragraph.
  6. Always collect more information than you need. That odd fact or humourous quip might make the perfect lead.
  7. Look for your material everywhere. We are always inundated with absurd messages and portents. They tell a lot about our society. Try to give your lead a freshness of perception or detail. Learn to look at life from a different angle once in a while.
  8. Narrative is the oldest and can be the most compelling way to hold the reader's attention. Don't do the "breakfast to bed" chronology. Take the reader directly to the heart of the action. There's no point in going to the swimming hole if you're not going to do more than get your toes wet. Jump right in!
  9. Within the broad rule of "don't let the reader get away", approach your subject in a manner most natural to both you and the subject.
The Ending
  1. Most beginning writers are still prisoners of their high school days - English Lit. teachers that ruled that every story must have a beginning, a middle and an end. In the words of my military instructors "Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you've told them." This works well for lesson plans but it doesn't work so well for articles.
  2. Recapping can sound forced, like you're just sticking in words to take up space. It's boring, and it's insulting. If you've written your message clearly, made all the points you need to in a clear, concise fashion, trust the reader to be able to think for himself. The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right. Give the reader something to make him smile, or think about, and he'll remember it long after he's read your article.
  3. Bring the story full circle -- echo the beginning. Quotations work well.
  4. Surprise is refreshing in non-fiction. If you're surprised about some fact or idle bit of trivia, the reader is liable to be surprised as well -- and delighted. It's a way of ending on a smile, or "I didn't know that."
Ch. 10 - Bits and Pieces
  1. Use active verbs whenever possible.
  2. Passive constructions sap the energy from your words. "He was bitten by the dog." So? "The dog bit him." Ouch!
  3. Short verbs "move" faster.
  4. Verbs also carry imagery.
  5. Use precise verbs.
  1. Most adverbs are unnecessary and annoying.
  2. Don't use adverbs unless they "work". Don't use an adverb when you can use a verb that says the same thing.
  1. Most adjectives are also unnecessary if you've used the proper noun.
  2. Most adjectives are a self-indulgent decoration. They are the baroque architecture of writing.
Little Qualifiers
  1. Don't hedge yourself with timidities. "It is possible..." ? Is it? Are you sure?
  2. "Good writing is lean and confident."
  3. Qualifiers can destroy a reader's trust in you.
  4. Believe in yourself and in what you are saying.
The Period
  1. Most writers don't reach the period soon enough.
  2. If you must use a long sentence, make sure you are always in control of it.
The Exclamation Point
  1. These are the gushing debutantes of writing. They titter and giggle. Avoid them.
  2. Humour is best achieved by understatement, not the blatant "look at me" of an exclamation point.
The Semi-Colon
  1. The semi-colon is like a Victorian, melodramatic pause. It weighs more than I do.
  2. Try using either a dash, or better yet, a period. These are better suited to 20th century pacing.
The Dash
  1. It is used to amplify or justify something in the second part of a sentence that was mentioned in the first part.
  2. A double dash adds an explanatory detail that otherwise might need a second sentence.
The Colon
Use it for itemized lists.
Mood Changers
  1. These are also known as "conjunctive adverbs" or "adverbial clauses".
  2. "But" announces a total contrast with what has gone before. Don't be afraid to start a sentence with it.
  3. "However" is dangerous. It should be used as soon as possible in a sentence, but it looses power if it's used at the very beginning or the very end of a sentence.
  4. Use short words whenever possible, rather than a clause.
  5. Make sure you orient the reader. Where did the previous sentence leave him?
Use clear contractions only, and don't invent any. "I'd" is unclear in most situations, and "could've" doesn't exist. Trust your ear and your instincts.
"That" and "Which"
  1. Use whichever of the two words sounds most natural.
  2. "Which" usually qualifies the phrase before it; it describes, identifies, locates or explains in greater detail.
Conceptual Nouns
  1. These ungainly nouns are an impersonal activity and use only the verb "is". They don't have any human involvement or element to them. For example:
    1. The common reaction to the new taxes is anger.
    2. Cynicism is the normal response to political promises.
    3. The current hostility is a symptom of change.
  2. Abstract nouns are albatrosses, millstones that drag down your writing. Leave them for those who get paid to be boring.
Creeping Nounism
  1. Conceptual nouns attach themselves to each other like a molecular chain.
  2. Zinsser gives an example: "communications facilitation skills development intervention". Where are the people? Where is the verb? This means what? Huh? Is this something that will teach me how to speak better - or something to shut me up?
  3. Verbs work much better than nouns.
  1. Overstating your point is like being trapped in a room with someone who only speaks in rhyme. It won't take long before you're just as addled as they are.
  2. Humour is like a hug from a child. Let it sneak up on the reader.
Don't exaggerate or inflate your story. The first mistake will destroy the credence of the rest of your article.
Dictated sentences are usually pompous, sloppy and repetitive. Mouths don't have editors, something to keep in mind when you're writing dialogue, too.
Writing is NOT a Contest
  1. Forget about competing with a gazillion other writers. Go at your own pace. Say what you have to say.
  2. Your only 'competitor' should be yourself.
The Subconscious Mind
  1. It does more writing than you think.
  2. It never sleeps.
  3. Much of what you see and hear will eventually come back to you just when you need it most.
The Quickest Fix
The best solution to a problem sentence is often avoided -- delete the sentence.
  1. Keep them short. "White space" around your words work in your favour, if used sensibly.
  2. Paragraphing is a subtle but important element in writing. It is the road map by which you tell your readers how your ideas are organized.
  3. Each paragraph has its own integrity of content and structure.
  1. It's a bloody pain in the p'toot, but 20th century writers are stuck with it.
  2. Use generic nouns whenever possible, plural nouns or "or" when not. Use what sounds natural.
  3. Plurals, however, can weaken an image by making it harder to visualize.
  4. Don't be afraid to address the reader directly - "You can..."
  1. Any fool can write. Only a writer is adept at rewriting.
  2. Writing is a process, not a finished product.
  3. Rewriting isn't just cutting out words, or writing the same thing in different words, it's also a reshaping and refining of your raw material.
Word Processing
Word processors are God's gift to writers. 'Nuff said, to quote Stan Lee.
Trust Your Material
  1. There is nothing more interesting than the truth.
  2. "Colour" is a part of "fact". You really shouldn't need to add more.
  3. People write better when they write about familiar subjects. Their enjoyment of a subject is passed on to the reader.
Go With Your Interests
  1. There is no subject forbidden to a writer. If your subject follows where your heart leads, you will write well and keep your readers entertained.
  2. An honest connection to reality makes an enjoyable story.

- Part 1 -