On Writing Well

These are book notes for On Writing Well, by William Zinsser.

But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.

Good writing comes in the editing. I need to set time aside to deliberately practice cutting sentences down. In a past technical writing internship, I learned the importance of simple sentences. If people are following directions, extra words distract.

One assignment that’s stuck with me comes from a software documentation class1. It was probably the first or second assignment. We were supposed to write directions for something we’re familiar with, like making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. (Or maybe the entire class had to write steps for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.)

The next day, the teacher brought in the usual things for making PB&Js. He then took a random sheet from the stack and tried to follow the directions, of course following it word for word. Always failing. He demonstrated how you can cause confusion with too many words and too few.

Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they don’t know.

Asking this for every paragraph is good practice when outlining and writing a first draft.. Asking this for every sentence will help in editing and creating the second and third drafts. Asking this for every word is probably what separates good writers from the rest. Knowing the right answer separates the great.

What am I trying to say in this post? On Writing Well is a great book about improving as a writer.

I’m currently reading Save the Cat and Nobody wants to read your shi*. Both of them talk about underlying concepts in writing.

Zooming back, what am I trying to say in these 100 posts? Consistently working on something a little bit at a time (two pages a day) adds up.

Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to “personalize” the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.

I’m currently using a gimmick in footnotes, but I think the footnotes are where I write things that are most alive. Maybe because they’re typically more personal thoughts. Somehow I need to bring that aliveness to the relevant points.

My vocabulary is okay. There’s a little bit of conflict there, because I want to expand the vocabulary of words I use. But then that gets away from the idea of writing how you speak. That’s the kind of writing that I enjoy reading. I mean, I’d probably say “has no bearing on” instead of “inconsequential”. I guess knowing which one to use when will come with experience.

Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is.

This is getting pretty deep. I’ve never thought of selling myself as a writer. Well, I guess I’ve thought it’d be cool to earn money through writing. And I know he didn’t really mean “sell” in monetary terms. More just making people believe in a subject. And in turn, making them believe in me as a writer. This just got deeper.

Something from earlier is stuck in my head: my footnotes have the most aliveness. I’ll continue trying to figure that out. I think it’s because the footnotes give a sense of who I am.

One underlying goal when writing documentation is writing in a way where you can hide the seams between people. It’s written like code. You shouldn’t be able to tell who wrote it. If I want to succeed in any way as a writer, I need to start shooting for the opposite.

Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.

Malcolm Gladwell estimates that finishing a book is probably 25% writing and 75% thinking about the writing. And it’s a cycle: learning to write clearly becomes learning to think clearly. That’s why you have to get the reps in. That’s why I’m trying to publish daily.

  1. Did you fall asleep just imagining this course?