William Zinsser's On Writing Well

This month I conducted a workshop for young scholars on writing for a general audience. In preparation for the workshop I read—or rather reread—William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well. I recommend it to anyone who wants to become a better writer.

Much of what Zinsser says is familiar, such as be concise and avoid clutter and use short, Anglo-Saxon words instead of long, Latinate words. And, yes, such advice is generally correct. But where Zinsser is really valuable is in the advice he gives for writing different kinds of nonfiction essays. Especially insightful is the chapter titled “A Writer’s Decisions,” in which he takes readers through one of his own essays and explains the many choices he made.

Zinsser’s book is as much about a frame of mind as it is about do’s and don’t’s. “Ultimately,” he writes, “the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is.” Be true and be compassionate, and your writing may turn out well in the end.