On Writing Well

An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction
William Zinsser
Harper & Row, 1976; HarperResource Quill 25th Anniversary Edition, 2001

My first copy of this book bore the subtitle An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction. That An Informal had been replaced with The Classic by the time I wore the book out speaks volumes about its staying power.

The terseness of the chapter titles in Part I (“Principles”) reflects author William Zinsser’s belief that boiling prose down to its essence is one of the writer’s primary goals: “Simplicity”; “Clutter”; “Style”; and so on. In a departure from most guides of this kind, Part III (“Forms”) focuses on various writerly modes, including business writing, science writing, sports writing, humor, and the memoir. (Click here if  think you’d like to keep this manual within reach of your keyboard.)

Zinsser first taught writing at Yale, then at the New School and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism (both in his native New York), so obviously should speak for himself. In his introduction to the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition of On Writing Well he discusses the effects of e-mail on good writing:

I don’t know what still newer electronic marvels are waiting just around the corner to make writing twice as easy and twice as fast in the next 25 years. But I do know they won’t make writing twice as good. That will still require plain old hard work, clear thinking, and the plain old tools of  English.

An out-of-the-blue note for music lovers: The 15-plus books Zinsser has brought forth over the decades include Mitchell & Ruff: An American Profile in Jazz (2000), about musicians Dwike Mitchell and Willie Ruff, and Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs (2006).

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