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On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

4.24  ·  Rating details ·  25,662 ratings  ·  2,058 reviews
On Writing Well has been praised for its sound advice, its clarity and the warmth of its style. It is a book for everybody who wants to learn how to write or who needs to do some writing to get through the day, as almost everybody does in the age of e-mail and the Internet. Whether you want to write about people or places, science and technology, business, sports, the arts ...more
Paperback, 30th Anniversary Edition, 336 pages
Published April 5th 2016 by Harper Perennial (first published 1976)
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 ·  25,662 ratings  ·  2,058 reviews

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Roy Lotz
It’s always intimidating setting out to write a review of a book on writing. One feels naked, exposed—now you have to prove that you’ve learned something. Lucky for me, I am a creature with little shame, so I’ll let my prose all hang out.

After reading Pragmatism by the American philosopher William James, I’ve realized that some American qualities cut deep. We are a people who love action and despise abstract argument. We like to see efficiency and real-world results. We set ourselves a goal an
Feb 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: writing
Brilliant book!I definitely learned a lot of extremely useful advice from this book. I learned about the writing mistakes that I was making, and also how to enrich my own writing. Zinsser's tone and sense of humour made reading the book fun and interesting. This is the kind of book I would re-read every now and then for inspiration. ...more
Oct 17, 2015 rated it it was amazing
How do you learn to write, really, other than by writing. But now and then, it's good to pause and think about the art of good writing, the craft. This famous little book can be the reflective pause that will help you be care-full, love-full, with your work. The book is not just more of the same old stuff you've always heard. The advice given by the author is creative and his examples of good writing are informative and insightful. And because good writing is always connected to the inner life a ...more
Sep 05, 2010 rated it it was ok
Shelves: manuals
Zinsser's first few chapters talk solely about eliminating clutter and simplifying your work... yet his book is more than 300 pages of repetitive, hypocritical and lengthy sentences. This book could have been easily shortened to 50-100 pages. I was not a fan of his many examples (quite frankly, I skipped over most of them). Most of all, I wish Zinsser followed his own advice - simplify, and trust your material (don't feel the need to explain almost every single principle; we get it). The book, h ...more
Apr 29, 2012 rated it did not like it
This book may have a few valuable suggestions throughout, but it is difficult to reap Zinsser's lessons through his sexism and eurocentrism. He uses his own work (Haircurl) in the "Humor" chapter for no good reason because he really doesn't do anything with it except to show that it is funny. Unfortunately, it is not funny, and it is actually quite offensively mocking women. In "A Writer's Decisions" he describes a piece he wrote with thickly layered romanticism about a desert tribe that exotici ...more
Aug 18, 2015 rated it really liked it
A straightforward guide to writing solid nonfiction. William Zinsser offers sound advice, including how to eliminate clutter and ways to target your audience. He spans several genres within nonfiction, ranging from sports writing to travel articles to memoir. He incorporates several example passages from his favorite writers and from his own work.

On Writing Well provided tangible, quality writing tips. It did not excite me, though. Zinsser has a somewhat eurocentric perspective and his writing s
Amir Tesla
Mar 12, 2019 rated it liked it
A good book on writing non-fiction.
Katelyn Beaty
May 18, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: person who wants to write all good
I always thought of the ability to write well as a gift more than a skill--kind of like hand-eye coordination, or rhythm. You either have it or you don't. It's not until I began working in the editorial world that I realized the writing which seems effortless is that which requires the most effort. Part of my training at this job required reading a quintessential work on nonfiction writing, William Zinsser's "On Writing Well" (30th Anniversary edition). I was warned that it's a slow burn--perhap ...more
Marc *Dark Reader of the Woods*
I don't understand. This book is just the letters W—E—L—L written over and over again, for three hundred pages.
No? How about this then: It's not well known that the author was taken aback by several critical reviews of this book. He insisted that these were not factually accurate, particularly those written by female reviewers. He responded by publishing a sequel titled, "On Writing Actually".
One particular bit of writing advice resonates with me, in the chapter on reviewing the art
Jan 22, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: writing
On Writing Well may primarily focus on non-fiction, but parts of it should be required reading for novelists, as well. Though, at first, Zinsser’s advice may seem anal–retentive and persnickety, it is great for keeping your work focused and making your sentences sharper.
The best part of On Writing Well focuses on“trimming the fat in the sentences you write. Zinsser provides a hand-edited page of his own On Writing Well manuscript as an example of how to cut down on useless words, and it is tru
Dec 17, 2020 marked it as dnf
Shelves: writing
I would not recommend this to those who spend hours watching writing videos like moi.

If you still want to read it, hope it'll be more helpful to you.
Jan 25, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Anyone who wants to improve their writing.
Shelves: reference, writing
One of the oldest ways to master a craft is through imitation and writing well is no different. Zinsser's book stands alongside Strunk & White's "Elements of Style" as one of the best guides on how to write clearly and effectively. The book's tone and style is much like a series of lectures from a professor who projects a sense of knowledge, warmth, and passion.

Zinsser illustrates many of his points through the use of personal anecdotes and examples culled from writers of different disciplines.
Michael Galdamez
Writing a sufficiently well-written review for a well-written book about how to write well is a lot to write well.

So I'll write it well later.
Joy D
On Writing Well provides advice on how to write non-fiction. It is logically organized into four sections: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitude. The first section covers the basics. It conveys tips on writing in a straight-forward uncluttered manner with emphasis on action verbs. The second focuses on organization, presentation, and structure. The third shows examples of different types of writing, such as travel, memoir, science, business, sports, arts, and humor. The last section explores ...more
Bibliobites  Veronica
Apr 15, 2021 rated it it was amazing
I was a long time reading this - probably a year and half, all told. But as I neared the end, I didn’t want it to end - and that is something I’ve never said about any non-fiction book, and certainly never expected to say about a writing book. But the author’s voice is so lovely and conversational, and I learned so much so effortlessly. Hopefully I can I put some of it into practice, on the small writing projects I have! But even if I never intended to write a word, I’d always be glad I read thi ...more
Neil R. Coulter
Nov 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, editing
Returning to On Writing Well some years after the last read-through is like reconnecting with an old friend. This was one of the first books I read when I really started to learn how to write (which, I might mention, happened after I‘d completed a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, and a PhD; thank you, American higher education). William Zinsser’s clarity and winsomeness fueled my love of writing and editing, and looking at the book now, I’m almost startled to recognize how much of my edi ...more
Rosie Nguyễn
Mar 18, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: writing
A must read for those whose works relate to writing: students, teachers, businessmen, reporters, and of course, writers. Very useful tips along with very witty style. And above all, a man with high passion, virtue and responsibility with his job.
Miranda Cary
In my opinion this book, compared to Elements of Style, is like being transported to an entirely different world in itself. No longer is some taut professor (sorry, Mr. White and Mr. Strunk! I still love you.) slapping a ruler against the board, directing you what verbs to use and which tenses sound best, what constitutes as good language compared to language that is gaudy and overrated, only putting the ruler down by the last few minutes of class to speak calmly with you; if White and Strunk tr ...more
Gabrielė Bužinskaitė
Unpleasant truth: very few of us write well.

This book is a strong start when you cannot define good writing, but you think you can produce it. I’m sure it will humble you. The author shares the most common writing mistakes — I started seeing them everywhere. He focuses on what to avoid if you want people to read your non-fiction.

For me, the most important message of the book is this: keeping the reader’s attention is the hardest thing to do. University didin’t teach me that; my work has always
Mark Seemann
Oct 18, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Write for you because otherwise what you write becomes impersonal. Write for the reader because otherwise what you write becomes parochial.

I'm already a writer, so I didn't buy this book to learn how to write. I bought it to become a better writer. Maybe it will make me a better writer.

I admit that I'm inspired to write about topics that I previously have not touched. How can I fault a book that inspires me?

On the other hand, I had expected more concrete advice on how to structure my writing; ho
Mathis Sötje
Mar 18, 2022 rated it really liked it
The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words. - William H. Gass

With On Writing Well, William Zinsser gives the reader an elegant guideline on how to change the world into words. Writing is a craft that can be practiced, and there are rules that govern the process. Just like architects have to do mulitple drafts of their work, authors have to do multiple drafts of theirs. There is always a word more fitting, a sentence more precise or a way to give the para
Sep 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Really great practical advice on writing--be clear, be truthful, and don't get cocky. I should re-read this one again and again ...more
Oct 21, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Why Zinsser Still Matters

Second only to The Elements of Style, this is the best book ever written for writers. In many ways, it's better than Strunk and White, which tends to focus on grammar and the actual mechanics of writing as opposed to how a writer should think and approach things. The book focuses on nonfiction, but many (if not most) of the principles apply equally to any style of writing. Even chapters on things like how to do an interview offer valuable insights into what you're lookin
Mar 31, 2010 rated it it was ok
Read the first two parts--

Witty, concise, and informative, the first two parts on "Principles" and "Methods" are brilliant. These parts, however, constitute 30% of the book. The rest of the book - that is, 70% - is uneven and can be skipped without missing out on anything important.

The only chapters I found worth reading are those on "Science and Technology," "Business Writing," and "Writing About Arts," all of which are in Part III. Other than these, none of the chapters say anything that hasn'
Cathy DuPont
Feb 11, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
With Steve's review, I was reminded that I had read this years ago and it's in my "book closet" where I have all my writing reference books.

When did I read it? Well, I would have to think back and I can figure it out but it will take a while and I would rather be reading than go down that particular "memory lane."

Five stars indicates what I thought of this book and glad to know that it's contents are still valid today.

Dave I
Nov 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
Classic seminal work on editing, phrasing and delivering a message.
Feb 07, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Where was this book all my life?
It reveals the mindset and the craft behind great non-fiction writing. And the references are a goldmine. Read and apply to make your writing clear and engaging.
Michael Spotts
Jun 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Writers trapped in jungles
Turning the last page of On Writing Well, by William Zinsser, I compulsively kissed the cover—an act of grateful reverence bestowed on few books in the Spotts library, effectively Knighthood in the realm of my reading. This distinction was earned by Zinsser’s incomparable usefulness to the Writer that Would Be. Many “accomplished authors” have assumed the task of sharpening our nibs, and showed themselves little more than grammarians, or seized the chance to flaunt their cloying style and terrib ...more
Whitney Hutchings
I am pretty impressed with myself that I finished this book in a week...But it was interesting and VERY helpful for writing future papers and even in my writing outside of school. I did find myself skipping over some paragraphs sometimes and just scanning (that is why I rated it lower). But overall, it was a good read. I think that I would've enjoyed it more if I didn't have to read it for school...but aren't we all like that?
Leo Walsh
May 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
What can I say about Zinsser that hasn't already been said? I read my first version of this book in the eighties as a side-text for a university comp class. And this is the third edition I've read. The core material stays the same, but this edition includes writing clear, concise prose for electronic media and meetings in addition to the paper-writing skills I focused on at 18.

Five stars. A classic. Plus.
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William Knowlton Zinsser is an American writer, editor, literary critic, and teacher. He began his career as a journalist for the New York Herald Tribune, where he worked as a feature writer, drama editor, film critic, and editorial writer. He has been a longtime contributor to leading magazines.

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