Katelyn Beaty's Reviews > On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

On Writing Well by William Zinsser
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May 18, 2007

really liked it
bookshelves: books-on-books, classics
Recommended for: person who wants to write all good
Read in May, 2007

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--perhaps the opposite of the other book I've read on the writing process, Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird." Zinsser's isn't littered with quirky anecdotes about his son's parasailing adventures or Buddhist friends or dreadlocks (only said with fondness, Annie). What Zinsser's book offered instead was practical and precise guidance on how to make the English language sing in your nonfiction writing.
Zinsser concentrates equally on the importance of technical mastery and original, honest ideas. On one hand, one must be able to convey information to his or her succinctly and clearly. This requires a breadth of knowledge on the ins-and-outs of English prose; grammar nerdiness doesn't hurt. (If you find yourself elated when you find someone else who uses the subjunctive tense, this book is for you.) Zinsser covers the variety of writing styles featured in most newspapers (i.e. sports writing vs. travel writing, common interest vs. international stories, etc.). But he also lays out suggestions on how to start the writing process as a writer-to-be. I especially enjoyed the section on how to make your personal story compelling as a memoir. I know everyone walks away from this book aspiring to become the next Tolstoy, but is this really such a silly aspiration?
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