On Writing Well

Writing is something we learn as small children and continue to craft for a lifetime. In today’s world, where ordinary people communicate to the world through social media, good writing is more important than ever. On Writing Well is great book for showing you how.

On writing well

I recently read On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser. This post is really one I am writing to myself, one where I am simply listing some of the points that got my attention. While many are no “news flash,” they provide clarity in areas where writers often err.

Sentence Structure:

  • Wordiness—Strip sentences to remove all unneeded words.
  • Length—Keep sentences short.
  • Voice—Use active voice.
  • “That” versus “which”—Use “that” unless it makes the meaning ambiguous. If the sentence needs a comma to achieve its meaning, use “which.”
  • Sexism—Instead of “him,” use “we” or “our.” Use plurals, so that later in the sentence, the pronoun will be “them” instead of “him.”

Paragraph Structure:

  • Sequence—The first sentence is the most important one. It must lead you to the next sentence, the second sentence to the third, and so forth.
  • Mood—Alert the reader to mood changes as soon as possible. The following words at the beginning of the thought accomplish this purpose: but, yet, however, nevertheless, still, instead, thus, therefore, meanwhile, now, later, today. The last four in the list are helpful because they establish a time frame for the reader.
  • Troublesome though—When a passage is giving trouble, leaving it out altogether is often the best idea.


  • Adverbs—Most adverbs are unnecessary.
  • Adjectives—Most adjectives are also unnecessary.
  • Qualifiers—Prune the “little qualifiers” such as “a bit,” “a little,” “pretty much,” “kind of,” “sort of,” “rather,” “quite,” “very,” “too,” “in a sense,” etc.
  • Exclamation—Use exclamations only to achieve a certain effect. Do not use them to illustrate something cute or funny or to make a joke. Humor is achieved by understatement.
  • Semicolon—Use a semicolon to provide the “on the one hand”; “on the other hand” balance to sentences.
  • Dash—Use a dash amplify or justify the first part of the sentence. Use a pair of dashes —one before and one after a group of words—to enclose a thought which would otherwise require parentheses.
  • Colon—Use a colon to introduce a list.

I was fortunate to have some great English teachers along the way. We all need review to keep bad habits from creeping into our writing. On Writing Well provides a good start.

Has anyone else read this book? What other books do you recommend for improving the craft of writing?