Book Review: On Writing Well

On Writing Well

Author: William Zinsser

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As an English as a second language student, I like to read books on writing, since writing is the most difficult and intricate skill to get a hand on if you learn a second language. However, I’ve had mixed feelings when it comes to such books. I have once read sections from “The Elements of Style” and the ideas doesn’t resonate with me for long. It seemed just a technical guidebooks of how to use verbs, punctuation, sentences structures, etc, without tapping into the core value of writing. I may have a misconception of the book because I read only part of it during a period of craziness in my life. After finishing “On Writing Well”, I decide to give “The Elements of Style” a second shot.

Unlike other books that I’ve read on writing, “On Writing Well” delivered a simple message: “Simplify your language and thereby find your humanity“.

Authors have written about the brevity of language upon numerous occasions. Zinsser put it this way:

“It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will archive the greatest strength and the least clutter…the secret writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Clutter is the disease of American writing.” — William Zinsser

Fancy words are not used because they are fancy, but their ability to deliver enriched meaning more concisely, thus achieving brevity.

It is the second part “find you humanity” that strikes me most.

Zinsser writes:” There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of methods, and any method that helps somebody to say what he wants to say is the right method for him.”

“Whatever your age, be yourself yourself write.”

“…the style is who you are.”

Growing up in China, I get used to the idea that there is two ways to everything, right or wrong. For example, in elementary school, it is required that we should sit with our hands behind our back. If you do otherwise, you will be reprimanded by teachers. Or we study hard to go to college, like that’s the only way we could succeed. Other kinds of “rebellions” is unthinkable.

All these contribute to the tendency to imitate the “role models” when I learn everything, including writing. This is even more the case since English is a second language, and everyone learns a new language by imitating the native speakers, of their pronunciation, writings, etc. However, the problem is that not all native speakers write good English. Zinsser criticized in his book that even writers from the Time writes cliches in their articles.

By imitating, I began to string up some cliches in the writing and had a hard time finding my own voice in writing. To make matters worse, at some point, I even think that imitating is the RIGHT and the  ONLY path for a non native speakers, a common mistake shared by many language learners that I know. However, The “humanity and warmth” have been sacrificed. Reading this book has taught me to look for my own voice, to be myself when I write. It will take a long time but I write with more confidence.

One final point that I truly take away is the confirmation that “writing wasn’t easy & it wasn’t fun. It was hard & lonely, and the words seldom just flowed.”, as Zinsser says on Page 3. I used to think that good writers are born to be one. However, it occurs to me that everyone needs to craft their skills and tools, experiencing periods of frustrations when he or she writes, brilliant writers not excluded.

All in all, “On Writing Well” for me is not only a book on writing, but on life attitudes as well: be confident and find the humanity in your writing.


Below is some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“I then said that the professional writer must establish a daily schedule and stick to it. I said that writing is a craft, not an art, and that the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself.”  (p. 4)

“If you have any doubts of what a word means, look it up. Learn its etymology and notice what curious branches its original root has put forth. See if it has other meanings that you didn’t know it had. Master the small gradations between words that seem to be synonyms.” (p. 32)

“Also bear in mind, when you are choosing words and stringing them together, how they sound. This may seem absurd: readers read with their eyes. But actually they hear what they are reading–in their inner ear–far more than you realize. Therefore such matters as rhythm and alliteration are vital to every sentence.” (p. 33)

“The larger point here is one of authority. Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of trust on the part of the reader. He wants a writer who believes in himself. Don’t diminish the belief. Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.” (p. 96)


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