On Writing Well - by William Zinsser





my notes:

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

Writers must constantly ask: what am I trying to say?

Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.

Clutter is the laborious phrase that has pushed out the short word that means the same thing.

Beware the long word that’s no better than the short word

Be grateful for everything you can throw away.

Writing is an intimate transaction between two people, and it will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity.

Good writers are visible just behind their words.

Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it.

If it amuses you in the act of writing it, put it in. (It can always be taken out, but only you can put it in.)

You’ll never make your mark as a writer unless you develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive.

Notice the decisions that other writers make in their choice of words and be finicky about the ones you select from the vast supply.

Master the small gradations between words that seem to be synonyms.

The Thesaurus is to the writer what a rhyming dictionary is to the songwriter- a reminder of all the choices- and you should use it with gratitude. 

Readers read with their eyes. But in fact they hear what they are reading far more than you realize.

Good writers of prose must be part poet, always listening to what they write.

An occasional short sentence can carry a tremendous punch. It stays in the reader’s ear.

All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem.

Think small. Decide what corner of your subject you’re going to bite off, and be content to cover it well and stop.

The most important sentence is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed, your article is dead.

Every paragraph should amplify the one that preceded it.

Take special care with the last sentence of each paragraph- it’s the crucial springboard to the next. 

Make the reader smile and you’ve got them for at least one more paragraph.

Just tell a story. It’s such a simple solution, so obvious and unsophisticated, that we often forget that it’s available to us.

Sometimes you can tell your whole story in the first sentence.

Are you summarizing because you think they’re too dumb to get the point?

The positive reason for ending well is that a great last sentence is a joy in itself. It gives the reader a lift, and it lingers when the article is over.

If you have presented all the facts and made the point you wanted to make, look for the nearest exit.

Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb.

Most adverbs are unnecessary.

Strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs.

Most adjectives are also unnecessary; they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don’t stop to think that the concept is already in the noun.

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.” 

Good writing is lean and confident.

Every little qualifier whittles awn some fraction of the reader’s trust.

Readers are annoyed by your reminder that this was a comical moment. They are also robbed of the pleasure of finding it funny on their own. Humor is best achieved by understatement, and there’s nothing subtle about an exclamation point.

Learn to alert the reader as soon as possible to any change in mood from the previous sentence.

A difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it.

All those midget paragraphs-verbless wonders-written by modern journalists to make their articles quick ’n easy.  Actually they make the reader’s job harder by chopping up a natural train of thought.

We all have an emotional equity in our first draft.

Nobody expects you to get it right the first time, or even the second time.

I don’t like to write, but I love to rewrite.

You can’t assume that your readers know what you assume everybody knows, or that they still remember what was once explained to them.

Cliches are the enemy of taste.

It doesn’t bother me that a certain number of readers will not be amused; I know that a fair chunk of the population has no sense of humor-no idea that there are people in the world trying to entertain them.

Much of the trouble that writers get into comes from trying to make one sentence do too much work.

Alliteration helps-readers enjoy any effort to gratify their sense of rhythm and cadence.

No writing decision is too small to be worth a large expenditure of time.

Decide what you want to do. Then decide to do it. Then do it.