Book review: On Writing Well

cover of "on writing well" and author William Zinsser

If I were a better writer, I'd be able to do justice to On Writing Well, William Zinsser's own brilliant writing on writing.

Or maybe I should say, if I were the writer I dreamed of being back when I first dreamed of being a writer, I could write the review I had somewhere in the back of my head: that perfect review that made the book come alive, that explained it perfectly, in words that danced around on the page in fancy clothes, as I'd always imagined my words doing when I finally got my word-choreographer chops.

Here's what Zinsser might say to that: Why don't you just tell them what the book is about, and what you got out of it? (Only, you know, he'd do it better. Because he's WILLIAM ZINSSER.)

Fine. Here's what I got out of it:

1. Writing is rewriting. You knew that, right? Even though most of us who write mostly on our blogs mostly don't. Like me, if you couldn't tell. Well, it is. Writing is rewriting. And some of what may be most useful to you about this book are the before/after examples. This man is ruthless with his darlings. Slaughtered, incinerated bodies everywhere.

2. Most good writing is good, simple writing. Very easy to get tangled up in your fancy pants, fancypants. Again, the book is rife with examples of good, simple writing. Which, to bring us neatly back to Point the First, is the result of plenty o' rewriting.

3. The writing that looks the easiest is often the hardest to pull off. Dialogue that sounds realistic. Humor that's actually humorous. Anything short.

4. Any subject can be interesting if it's written about well. Unfortunately, most people who know a lot about a thing don't know much about writing. If this is you, this is your book!

5. Anyone can learn to write well (enough). Mostly, writing is about listening and cutting and getting the hell out of the way of your story. The essays in this book will teach you how to do this.

There's a reason this book warranted a 25th anniversary edition. It's one of the best how-to manuals on writing out I can imagine, and I dream big. If you're a writer, or want to be, you should read this book; if you're serious about it, you should read it once a year.


Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.