Derek Sivers

Programmer, writer, avid student of life. I make useful things, and share what I learn.
On Writing Well - by William Zinsser

On Writing Well - by William Zinsser

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Pow! Love it. Great blunt advice about writing better non-fiction. So inspiring.

my notes

The essence of writing is rewriting. Just because they’re writing fluently doesn’t mean they’re writing well.

Establish a daily schedule and stick to it.

Strip every sentence to its cleanest components.

Clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.

Constantly ask: what am I trying to say?

Ask: have I said it?

Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.

Examine every word: a surprising number don’t serve any purpose.

A writer will do anything to avoid the act of writing.

Write in the first person.

If it amuses you in the act of writing, put it in. (It can always be taken out.)

Please yourself, and you will also entertain the readers.

Unexpected but refreshing words.

It's the failure of the writer to reach for anything but the nearest cliché:

Learned by reading the kind of writing I wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it.

The Thesaurus is to the writer what a rhyming dictionary is to the songwriter - a reminder of all the choices.

The Elements of Style, a book every writer should read once a year.

Read everything aloud before letting it go out into the world.

The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.

All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem.

Unity is the anchor of good writing. Unity of pronoun. Unity of tense. Unity of mood.

Every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before. Not two thoughts, or five - just one.

The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead.

Your lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading. It must cajole him with freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humor, or surprise, or with an unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question.

Hard details that tell the reader why the piece was written and why he ought to read.

Every paragraph should amplify the one that preceded it.

Take special care with the last sentence of each paragraph - it’s the crucial springboard to the next paragraph. Try to give that sentence an extra twist of humor or surprise.

Make the reader smile and you’ve got him for at least one more paragraph.

Salvation often lies not in the writer’s style but in some odd fact he or she was able to discover.

I collect more material than you will use.

Doesn’t spend any time setting the stage..

Give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did to your first.

Are you summarizing because you think they’re too dumb to get the point?

A good last sentence - or last paragraph - is a joy in itself. It gives the reader a lift, and it lingers when the article is over.

The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right. They didn’t expect the article to end so soon, or so abruptly, or to say what it said.

Make active verbs activate your sentences, and avoid the kind that need an appended preposition to complete their work. Don’t set up a business that you can start or launch. Don’t say that the president of the company stepped down. Did he resign? Did he retire? Did he get fired? Be precise. Use precise verbs.

Most adjectives : that the concept is already in the noun.

Prune out “a bit,” “a little,” “sort of,” “kind of,” “rather,” “quite,” “very,” “too,” “pretty much.”

Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of the reader’s trust.

Alert the reader as soon as possible to any change in mood from the previous sentence. “but,” “yet,” “however,” “nevertheless,” “still,” “instead,”

Dead sentences: The reader can’t visualize anybody performing some activity;

A difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it.

Midget paragraphs - verbless wonders - written by modern journalists to make their articles quick ’n’ easy. Actually they make the reader’s job harder by chopping up a natural train of thought.

Disruptive and condescending. “Yoo-hoo! Look how simple I’m making this for you!”

Good nonfiction writers think in paragraph units, not in sentence units.

I don’t like to write; But I love to rewrite.

Don’t annoy your readers by over-explaining - by telling them something they already know or can figure out. Try not to use words like “surprisingly,” “predictably” and “of course,” which put a value on a fact before the reader encounters the fact. Trust your material.

Imitate another writer.

Find the best writers and read their work aloud.

Writers who write interestingly keep themselves interested. An interesting life and a continuing education.

The most untaught and underestimated skill in nonfiction writing is how to organize a long article: how to put the jigsaw puzzle together.

Nobody can write a decent article about the disappearance of small towns in Iowa; it would be all generalization and no humanity. The writer would have to write about one small town in Iowa and thereby tell her larger story. And even within that one town she would have to reduce her story still further: to one store, or one family, or one farmer.

Plain declarative sentences, not a comma in sight. Each sentence contains one thought - and only one.

Much of the trouble that writers get into comes from trying to make one sentence do too much work.

Now, what do your readers want to know next? Ask yourself that question after every sentence.

“What is the piece really about?” (Not just “What is the piece about?”)

Readers should always feel that you know more about your subject than you’ve put in writing.

Write as entertainingly as possible.

Writers should think of themselves as part entertainer.

Make your piece jump by being more diverting than everyone else’s piece. This means giving the reader an enjoyable surprise.

To write better than everybody else, you have to want to write better than everybody else. You must take an obsessive pride in the smallest details of your craft.