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.
- 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.”
- 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?