On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Writing is an act of ego. You might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep it going.

Posted on Jan 06, '24

Principles of Writing

The Transaction

  • There is no one way to do personal work. There are multiple paths, methods and tools. Choose what works for you.
  • The author is selling themselves, not the subject. Their enthusiasm, their history, their baggage, their experience.
  • The heart of good non-fiction writing is the “personal transaction”: humanity and warmth


  • Strip every sentence into its cleanest components.
  • Clear thinking translates to clear writing. It is impossible for a muddy thinker to write well.
  • When reading something makes you sleep, the writer has caused you too much unnecessary trouble.
  • Writers must often ask - what am I trying to say? They often do not know. The clear writer is someone clearheaded enough to see this stuff what it is - fuzz.
  • Thinking clearly is a conscious act - that requires logical thinking.


  • Writing is about the small details.
  • Clutter is jargon that could be replaced with something shorter. It is political correctness gone amok.
  • Ways to remove clutter - Bracket method (i.e add brackets to phrases that can be discarded withouting changing meaning).
  • Most drafts can be cut by 50% without losing ideas.
  • Look for clutter and prune ruthlessly.


  • Only write for yourself.
  • People are attracted to authenticity, not prose. Someone sharing something they are incredibly passionate about.
  • One is craft, one is attitude. Not boring your audience is precise skill. Attitude is using the skill to express your personality.
  • Work hard to master the tools - simplify, prune and strive for order. Make it a mechanical act.
  • Express who you are - that’s the creative act. Relax and say what you want to say. Only be true to yourself.


  • Style takes time to be uncovered. Strip writing to basics, before you build it back up again.
  • Know what the essential tools are and what job they were designed to do.
  • Readers want authors to sound genuine: be yourself.
  • What writing needs - relaxation and confidence.
  • Writers are most natural in first-person.
  • But “I” is hard for people to write. It requires taking responsibility for your opinions, or sounds too egotistical.
  • Draft in first person and then take the “I”s out, if you are not allowed to write in first person.
  • Sell yourself. Your subject will exert appeal.
  • Style has roots in psyche.


  • Writers have words as their only tool. Be in love with words. Pay attention to them. Use the dictionary.
  • The single biggest profanity in writing is journalese writing - boring, cliched, uninspired jargon.
  • Use the thesaurus to innervate your writing and the reader.
  • When you write, people just don’t read - they hear. The tone, alliterations, excitement. Writing is entertainment.
  • Sound the words. Listen to your writing. Because someone else is. Listen to how your words play along. If it sounds boring.
    • change the way the words are arranged.
    • make the phrase shorter to pack a punch.
    • use a word arrangements and rhyming.
    • reverse the order of a sentence.


  • Language keeps changing
  • Good usage is using good words, to express yourself clearly and simply to someone else.


The Sound of Your Voice

  • Writing is about the author. It is “the author’s book about baseball or jazz”
  • Cliches or slang lacks style and is breezy
  • Good writing is not accidental, it is discipline
  • Finding a voice is about taste. Taste is about what not to do.
  • Less is more
  • Taste can be acquired
  • Imitation is part of the creative process
  • Fresh imagery is good taste; simple homey words with clear meaning
  • Remember the uses of past when you tell your story

Enjoyment, Confidence and Fear

  • You have to jumpstart yourself, motivate yourself, get over the fear.
  • With each rewrite, you insert more personality into your work.
  • How to fight fears - write about what interests you, what you enjoy.
  • “Dying is no big deal. Living is the trick.”
  • To be interesting, be interested.
  • Learning is a tonic.
  • If you write about stuff that you are interested in, you will automatically sound interesting
  • Listen to yourself for - “That’s interesting”

What I love about this book?

  • The book itself is an example of all it teaches.
  • It has funny examples.