Book Review: On Writing Well by William Zinsser
“I’ve used writing to give myself an interesting life and a continuing education…Learning is a tonic.” ~ William Zinsser
One of my goals for 2016 was to become a better non-fiction writer. I never pursued bettering my writing skill past college. However, I knew that if I was going to be any good at blogging, I had to learn how to write better.
I was starting a new relationship with online writing. A complete 180 degrees from my days of business and college writing. So, I hung out in the blogs of successful non-fiction writers. Authors whose writing style I enjoyed.
This book, On Writing Well, and Stephen King’s book, On Writing kept coming up in articles and discussion. This pushed me to purchase both books this past summer (2016). I started reading William’s book first on October 26, 2016. Using my read-30-minutes-a-day habit. I finished all 303 pages on November 16, 2016.
I am not receiving any compensation for this book review.
But, I am providing my Amazon Affiliate link throughout this review. Should you buy the book using my links, I will receive Amazon Affiliate commissions at no cost to you.
Neither the author or his publishers are compensating me for writing this review.
What on Writing Well Talks About
William Zinsser starts the book with the major pain points of non-fiction writing. Things like clutter, style, the audience, words, and proper usage.
On Writing Well goes into the details of what you can do to better your writing:
- How to turn writing into a habit.
- How to avoid certain styles.
- How to find your own style.
- What to write and what not to write depending on your purpose.
- And most of all, how to find your purpose for writing.
William covers the different types of nonfiction writing:
- Business writing.
- Technical writing.
- Sports and humor writing.
- Journalistic writing.
- How to approach memoirs.
- And writing about other people.
He also talks about how to find your own voice and what to look for in an editor. But the biggest thing William is passionate about is how to write and not lose the essence of yourself.
Although the book was first published in 1976 and updated by William in 2006, it still has relevance in today’s writing for both online and in print.
Who This Book Is For
On Writing Well is a must-read for anyone who writes. And even though this book is for non-fiction, all kinds of writers will benefit from taking in this wonderful book.
This book is for bloggers, journalists, biographical authors, business writers, even copywriters and editors. And anyone who wants a better understanding of the nuances of nonfiction writing.
What Didn’t Work in On Writing Well
This is minor, but the way William injected his past articles into some of the chapters got me impatient. Although he did this to give examples, it slowed me down (perhaps this was William’s intent).
Being a product of this demanding generation, I just wanted to get the facts of the chapter and move on.
In hindsight, I think William made this book to be a slower read than most modern books. Not a bad thing, and perhaps I could use to be more patient.
On Writing Well is a slow read than most. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Just something that didn’t work for me at first.
What Touched Me the Most In On Writing Well
I never thought about what my responsibilities were as a writer. The best lesson I got from this book is that it’s my fault if I lose the reader.
This is opposite of what I thought the reader/writer relationship was. Writing just became harder work.
But this concept of managing the reader’s engagement legitimized writing for me.
I’ve always held the common misconception that writing was a lazy man’s game. You know, the idea that pursuing liberal arts was a cop out. Back then, so was trying to be a writer.
Maybe that’s why it has taken me so long to pursue an old passion.
No, writing is hard work. Lonely work. But the most fulfilling work you could ever do, if you let it.
Another part of the book that I liked was how William crafted every chapter to reflect the topic it covered.
The best part (and worst part) was the chapter on clutter. William’s point was to teach readers how to stay away from jargon, clichés, and fluff. He drives this point home by making it the hardest chapter to read.
In fact, I almost put the book down because of this chapter. But, the lesson was effective enough that I’ll never forget William’s point.
What Others Are Saying About On Writing Well
On Writing Well was published in 1976. It has since been updated (2006 by William), and re-released April 2016 by Harper Perennial.
You can get the 30th year anniversary edition on all major online booksellers. Here is my Amazon affiliate link to the paperback version.
The Amazon audience gives this book (the 30th-anniversary paperback edition) a 4.7 out of 5 stars with 681 reviews.
The Goodreads audience gives it a 4.22 out of 5 stars with 97% of people liking the book with 906 reviews.
My Final Two Cents
This brilliant book is a favorite. I’m glad I purchased the paperback version (makes it easier for me to input personal notes and highlights).
On Writing Well is part reference book, part story and is a must for everyone who writes, no matter what type of writing they do.
Have you read this book? Tell me what you liked, or didn’t like about this book.
Still wanting to read this book? Check out what other people are saying on Amazon and pick up a free Kindle sample here. (Affiliate link)
Professional advice from a seasoned writer. William Zinsser gives excellent examples of what good writing and bad writing looks like.
Some chapters are lengthy and hard to read but were made that way on purpose.