On Writing Well: Theme Summaries and Review

Do you want to communicate more effectively using the written word? This post is for you.

I’ll begin with a general summary of On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser. Next up, I’ll summarize the most important themes with some supporting examples. To finish off, I’ll share my overall view of the book.

On Writing Well – General Summary

Just as you’d expect from the book title, Zinsser shares with us the things he feels are required to become a good writer. It’s not a grammar book, although it’s mentioned on occasion. Zinsser explains with broad strokes how to write for a variety of non-fiction niches. He provides practical advice that you can apply immediately. There are a few themes emphasized throughout the book:

  • Simplify your writing.
  • Share your personality.
  • Enjoy learning.
  • View writing as a craft, not an art.

The book is sprinkled with excerpts that support each of these points. These are drawn from a mixture of classical books, his students’ work, and his own writing.

Simplify Your Writing

“The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”

If I had to select just one takeaway from the book, it would be this; simplicity in writing is the essence of Zinsser’s message. It’s reiterated in a variety of forms throughout the book.

“Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose.”

He explains that writing isn’t a fast process. After you’ve written the words, you have to go back through and remove everything unnecessary. Adding this stripping process is challenging for some writers as they feel they’re undoing all their work. He claims that this process is part of what distinguishes good and bad writers.

“Beware, then, of the long word that’s no better than the short word: ‘assistance’ (help), ‘numerous’ (many), ‘facilitate’ (ease), ‘Individual’ (man or woman), ‘remainder’ (rest), ‘initial’ (first), ‘implement’ (do), ‘sufficient’ (enough), ‘attempt’ (try), ‘referred to as’ (called), and hundreds more.”

Not only does he advocate removing unnecessary words, but he also rants about sesquipedalian writers – writers who like using big words. In case you think I ignored his advice, his suggestion isn’t to remove all large words. Rather, he wants us to write simply for the most part and occasionally use longer words as a tasteful garnish that will amuse the reader.

“Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.”

It’s not just the vocabulary that he wants us to simplify. The overall structure of your writing can be improved too. If you present an argument in a disjointed way, your reader will understandably feel lost. Take the time to think things through before you begin; this will improve your writing overnight.

Share Your Personality

“You are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience—every reader is a different person.”

Throughout the book, Zinsser makes clear that writing is an act of ego. He claims that trying to write for a particular reader will strip your personality from the writing. To write engagingly you need to share your personality. This means writing things the way you think is best.

“Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is.”

He talks about how he’s read books on topics he has zero interest in. Why? Purely because he found the personality of the author interesting. Their style came through and he was engaged by what they were saying. They made themselves stand out from the crowd by sharing their personality.

“Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation.”

As he thinks your writing should reflect your personality, he stresses the importance of writing using the same vocabulary you would in conversation. This makes sense; if your writing has been churned through a thesaurus it’s no longer a reflection of your personality. 

“Your style will be warmer and truer to your personality if you use contractions.”

Simple, yet immediately practical. Very few people talk without using contractions. Choosing to avoid them makes your writing sound stilted and overly formal. This is a common issue in business communications. If you doubt this advice, he gives the following two sentences and asks you to read them aloud:

  1. I’ll be glad to see them if they don’t get mad.

I will be glad to see them if they do not get mad.”

Enjoy Learning

“Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That’s almost the whole point of becoming a writer.”

The author claims that boring people won’t be able to make a topic interesting; their writing will inevitably be dull. Approaching new experiences with curiosity will allow you to share those feelings in your writing. If true, this means being a good writer is more than just writing, it’s also an approach to life.

“I’ve used writing to give myself an interesting life and a continuing education.”

This has parallels with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s approach of cultivating flow states in order to live a fulfilled life. It’s easy to apply the model to what Zinsser says. If you’re interested in learning more about Flow states, check out our summary of the book here: ‘Optimize Your Life With Flow.’

Writing as a Craft

“If your job is to write every day, you learn to do it like any other job.”

As someone who makes a living as a writer, this resonated with me. Some days I’m not in the mood for writing. But, it’s my job, and I have to be able to switch on regardless of how I feel. Writing is often romanticized. However, it’s not always a labor of love – sometimes it’s just hard work. This is often overlooked by new writers and it’s refreshing to see it acknowledged by Zinsser.

“He knows that the tools of grammar haven’t survived for so many centuries by chance; they are props the reader needs and subconsciously wants.”

All the earlier talk about sharing your personality doesn’t mean you can ignore the established conventions of good writing. This is overlooked by some writers who feel that being understood is the end goal. Make it easy for your reader to follow your train of thought; don’t force them to decode the language you’re using.

On Writing Well – Review and Final Thoughts

Overall I enjoyed this. It contained actionable advice and was easy to read. My only issue with the book is that at times Zinsser can come across as hypocritical:

“Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”  

This seems somewhat ironic when he’s written a book preaching the importance of succinct and clear prose. When he’s verbose it’s a style choice; in anyone else it’s a flaw. Drawing attention to this is useful, as it lets writers see they don’t need to prune their writing as aggressively as he suggests.

If you want a deeper look at the themes discussed you should read the book, the examples he shares showcase the themes in a very compelling way. If you only write occasionally, you won’t gain much reading it. Apply everything we’ve discussed and you’ll see a huge improvement in your writing.

In today’s world, writing is more important than ever. We’re constantly connected via the internet. Whether you’re communicating for business or pleasure, your views will be better received if you write well.

Taking Zinsser’s principles to the extreme we can condense his book to the following takeaway: 
Share your personality and write with simplicity.

By: Scott O’Neill

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