I’d like to share my latest discovery, William Zinsser’s book On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, with you. I found his tips on how to improve your basic skills as a writer both practical and helpful, along with his assertion that there’s no excuse for sloppy writing or for failing to master the simple tools that will make your writing easier for your audience to read and understand. Here I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that my long and rambling sentence is one Zinsser would dislike on sight. I imagine he would tell me to stop making it do so much work and to break it into two or three shorter sentences.
Zinsser also dislikes qualifiers like “sort of, quite, and very”. His example of how they dilute the strength of your writing, “Don’t be"kind of" bold; be bold!” made me laugh out loud.
It turns out that starting a sentence with the word “But” is no longer verboten, especially when you’re shifting direction. According to Zinsser, there’s no stronger word to choose when you’re indicating a mood change or contrast. Forget your old middle school English classes and flatly refuse to start sentences with “however”. Instead, embrace the words "but, yet, and (one of my old favorites) nevertheless”.
Keep your paragraphs short. Zinsser explains that writing is visual, catching the eye before it reaches the brain. Given this, he feels the best writers think in paragraph units, rather than in sentence units.
Stay small so you can cover your subject thoroughly. The example he uses is Moby Dick. Melville didn’t write about whaling and seafaring men, Zinsser says. Instead, he chose to focus on one man and one whale.
This is just a taste of what you can expect from On Writing Well. The book is broken into four sections, Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes. Chapters that I particularly enjoyed were those dealing with humor, travel, and memoir writing and the concluding one, “Write as Well as You Can” (ending with a fantastic quote from Joe DiMaggio). It turns out that this book has been around for thirty years and, after devouring it, I can understand why!