Last Updated 27 Jul 2020

The book by William Zinsser On Willing Well

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The book by William Zinsser On Willing Well is a profound guide for writers in any nonfiction genre: from science to travel, sports to management. The author, William Zinsser, was a writer and editor for the New York Herald Tribune and developed this book out of a nonfiction writing course he taught at Yale.

Zinsser writes with refreshing simplicity, humor, and encouraging frankness. He's not one of these writers who pretends that the words just flow; he readily admits to delay, paralysis, and even perspiring over challenging projects. "Writing is hard work...Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it's because it is hard."

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This guide includes the entire process of writing. Chapters address a spectrum of central issues: principles, methods, forms, and attitudes. Throughout the first chapter, reader can see that all of us write differently; we have different styles, we write to different audiences, and we have our own sense of humor.

"On Writing Well" offers a very large scope of techniques and styles centered around enhancing writing, and helping to convey the simplest, most effective message possible.

After the first chapter, a reader will remember that simplicity is always the best option when writing. Today, our society is too perplexed in making our words clear. So perplexed, that we often confuse each other. Keeping a straightforward message is not only important, it is realistic. One should think of the process as cutting and burning a forest. Just as time is involved in allowing that forest to re-grow, we must take time to rebuild our sentences.

The next chapter deals with the reinforcement of what we just learned. To make our writing as strong as possible, we have to get rid of everything that isn't needed. Many sentences are too overloaded with adjectives. It is interesting, but true, that the political field has frequently used evasive wording and overloaded sentences to try and cover up the meaning of the truth.

The ideas must be quick and to the point, so that to be easier to understand. Decorating sentences with extra words won't earn any respect, in fact, they may do just the opposite.

The book also discusses the importance of developing your own style. Zinsser says that although it sounds paradoxical, before we can develop an unmistakable style, we have to cut down our writing to the bare minimum. A very convincing passage was:

"Few people realize how badly they write. Nobody has shown them how much excess or murkiness has crept into their style and how it obstructs what they are trying to say."

Psychology also makes a somewhat unexpected appearance in the text. "Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going."

To be able to write well, one must be comfortable with yourself. When we are relaxed, we write better, and the reader notices it.

The sections on principles and methods include the usual suspects-conceiving a compelling opening paragraph, focusing on the audience, achieving unity of voice, choosing words carefully, ending with a punch, and (everyone's favorite) revising.

His chapters on forms offer guidelines for writing in specific fields-business, science, sports, humor, the arts. The final chapters on attitude discuss psychological aspects of writing: embracing the sound of your authentic voice; enjoyment, fear, and confidence; how an infatuation with the idea of a finished product can impede your progress; a writer's decisions; and finally, an exhortation to write the highest quality work you can.

The chapter on a writer's decisions offers a glimpse into Zinsser's critical thought process for his own writing: he parcels out paragraphs of an article he wrote for a travel magazine, annotated with detailed commentary about the editorial choices he made as he wrote.

Author takes on an historical perspective of nonfiction as literature, if only to serve as an inspiration to developing nonfiction writers. He marks the change in society from radio to television, and discusses that with the developing need for accurate information.

The style he uses is direct and simple, free of confusion, the product of self-restraint. Varied with the author's insights and anecdotes are plentiful samples of writing both strong and weak, varying in style and genre, to illustrate the principles discussed in a given section. In addition to numerous excerpts of his own work, he shares selections from highly regarded writers like Joan Didion, E.B. White, Joseph Mitchell, John Updike, and Cynthia Ozick.

My one reclamation with the book is this: I do not agree with Zinsser's advice on dealing with gendered pronouns (he favors masculine pronouns when there is no graceful way to avoid choosing a gender-somehow using an occasional "she" fails to occur to him) and he sporadically refers to collective humanity as "man." However, beyond that, I find his advice flawless and his writing an excellent model of the principles he sticks to.

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

by William Zinsser (New York, NY- HarperPerennial, 1998),6th Edition, 308 pages

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