On Writing Well

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Considering how many books about writing that I’ve read in my life, it’s surprising that I’ve only just recently finished William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well. This is also surprising due to the fact that I just said I was going to stop reading books on writing so that I can actually do some writing. But let’s not talk about that right now. Instead, let’s talk about how great On Writing Well is. It’s definitely targeted towards non-fiction writers, but even fiction writers can benefit from Zinsser’s solid, timeless advice. As I read it I found myself jotting down notes and folding down pages. I wouldn’t say the book was inspiring in the same way as On Writing or Bird by Bird, but sometimes you just need to hear some concrete writing advice that has nothing to do with finding your muse or curing writer’s block.

So, with that in mind, here are my favourite quotes from On Writing Well:

“Examine every word you put on paper.”

“Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”

“Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.”

“Put brackets around words that might not be necessary, like obvious adverbs and adjectives, then read it without the brackets to see if it works. If it does it’s probably better without the bracketed material. Is every word doing new work?”

“Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation.”

“Every writing project must be reduced before you start to write.”

“Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw: a bit, a little, sort of, kind of, rather, quite, very, too, pretty much, in a sense, and dozens more. Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Good writing is lean and confident. Readers want a writer who believes in himself and in what he is saying. Don’t diminish that belief. Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.”

“Rewriting is the essence of writing well; it’s where the game is won or lost.”

“Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject.”

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