Book Review: William Zinseer ‘On Writing Well’

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Non-Fiction by William Zinseer

Prior to this lock down, when social distancing was not in place, I was sitting next to a boy who had his head buried in a book. Even thought he was reading it he was silently huffing and puffing. It came cross to me that it was a bit of a chore for him. So I asked him whether or not he was enjoying it. He said that it was part of his literature reading list for school. ‘It is good but there is too much description.’ he said.

Don’t you like description? I asked

‘I do’ he replied, ‘but it just too long. She (the author) should just get in with it and stop writing as if her main aim is to fill the pages.’

I’d just found a young man after my own heart.

I also understood that some authors tend to to go overboard in their literary description which sometimes fail to move the story forward. If it were one of the the classics, I would understand this type of writing. In those days, due to lack of television, people may not know what a place looks like. Therefore the author had to do his best to convey the scene to the readers mind.

However, I did not think this is that necessary for modern day literature. With this trend of thought I remember a book I had read. It was On Writing Well, The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinseer.

This book was published in 1976 which, in my eyes is old. Despite this, I find it highly relevant to present day. Even though Zinseer focuses mainly on non- fiction it is also applicable to fiction.

The first thing that popped into my head was ‘Why didn’t I discover Zinseer whilst I was at university?’ and the second thing was ‘ If only I could see my college professors face now.’

You see, my Professor would tell me that my work needed to have much bigger, deeper words. Also, I that I did not employ enough specialized words. In my defence I told him that one of my aims was to write so that anyone who is not linguistically inclined would understand and enjoy it. He peered at me over his gold rimmed spectacles, his forehead furrowing.

Despite Zinseer writing this book over 40 years ago, I believe it is still highly relevant for today’s writers. I found his advice to be short, sharp and simple. The most important ones were,

  • Most adverbs are unnecessary. I always thought adverbs painted a bigger picture. Seems I was wrong.
  • Apparently, most adjectives are unnecessary as well.
  • More dialogue less narrative (my teenager was correct) dialogue speeds up the action.
  • Short sentences. Write in short sentences. It gets to the point quicker.
  • The most important sentence is the first one. This really resonates with me. Usually a book has to hook me in at least the first two sentences. But if I am being a bit generous I will give it at least the first paragraph.
  • Get rid of clutter. If you don’t need it bin it. Keep your writing simple.

In summary, every word in your writing should need to be in the writing.

Thanks for reading and stay safe.

Bunmi A-K

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