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How to become a better nonfiction writer: William Zinsser’s top 13 writing tips

Bobby Powers from The Writing Cooperative explores the top 13 lessons he’s learned from William Zinsser’s book On Writing Well.

William Zinsser is underrated.

I’ve never heard a single person mention his name even though he wrote 19 books including one that sold over 1.5 million copies. Zinsser passed away in 2015, but his legacy will outlive any of us.

His books spanned topics as diverse as baseball, jazz, travel, writing, and memoir. His most famous work, On Writing Well, is one of the best writing advice books I’ve ever read. It’s in the same league as Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing.

1. Ignore what everyone says — there’s no “right way” to write.

“[T]here isn’t any ‘right’ way to do such personal work. There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of methods, and any method that helps you to say what you want to say is the right method for you.” -William Zinsser

Every author has their own spin on what habits you HAVE TO follow to become an exceptional writer.

Write every day, whether you feel like it or not. Write 1,000 words per day. Wake up early so you can write before the city awakes. Buy a nice writing desk. Buy an old-school fountain pen. Only write with pen and paper until you’re ready for editing, then use a computer.

And so on. And so on.

Zinsser says that’s all baloney. Find something that works for you. If you write best at night, then ignore the shaming of the early birds, press the snooze button, and write after everyone else goes to bed. If you’re getting burnt out by writing every day, then take a few days off. If you’re most productive writing on a computer, then don’t waste money on fancy pens and Moleskine notebooks.

Find a writing routine that suits you, then stick with it.

2. Clarity should be your primary focus.

“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.” -William Zinsser

Many writers make a fuss about the importance of personal style in writing. Zinsser agrees that style is important, but he encourages writers that style will emerge naturally over time. The most important thing is to master the art of clarity.

If your writing is clear and easy to understand, your readers will remain engaged. If your sentences confuse readers, they will immediately disengage.

Seek clarity first and you’ll discover style along the way.

3. Eliminate clutter.

“Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon…Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important…But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what — these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.” -William Zinsser

Have you ever read a book or article from a writer who was obsessed with trying to sound smart? It was painful, right?

You know the type of writer I’m talking about — the one who uses words that no normal human would ever say: sycophant, parsimonious, cacophony, perfunctory, mellifluous, etc.

“Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation.” -William Zinsser

Writers who try to sound smart often fail miserably, looking like a jackass in the process. Don’t be that person.

The best writers are so good you don’t even know they’re there. Their words are so simple and precise that you don’t stumble over them. The writer fades into the background.

4. Get to the point.

“It’s amazing how often an editor can throw away the first three or four paragraphs of an article, or even the first few pages, and start with the paragraph when the writer begins to sound like himself or herself. Not only are those first paragraphs impersonal and ornate; they don’t say anything — they are a self-conscious attempt at a fancy introduction.” -William Zinsser

I often find myself writing long introductions to “tee up” a story for readers. But then I look back at what I’ve written and realize my words haven’t added any value. I don’t sound like myself. I’m using words I’d make fun of other authors for using. I’m trying too hard.

When I realize that I’m making that mistake, I ask myself, “How would I explain this concept to a friend?” When I picture myself speaking the words, I’m able to cut through the crap. I sound like myself again.

Don’t resort to long-winded introductions or fancy thesis statements. Imagine yourself talking to a close friend. What would you tell them? Write that.

5. Invest the time to find the correct word.

“Notice the decisions that other writers make in their choice of words and be finicky about the ones you select from the vast supply…If you have any doubt of what a word means, look it up. Learn its etymology and notice what curious branches its original root has put forth. See if it has any meanings you didn’t know it had. Master the small gradations between words that seem to be synonyms.” -William Zinsser

Words matter. There’s a big difference between precede and proceed, appraise and apprise, credible and credulous, bemuse and amuse.

If you don’t know the definition of a word you’re planning to use, look it up. Commit to never use a word without knowing what it means.

6. Read the best writers in your field.

“Make a habit of reading what is being written today and what has been written by earlier masters. Writing is learned by imitation.” -William Zinsser

Sometimes I hesitate to read articles on Medium about topics I write about. I worry that if I read a self-improvement article by Stephen Moore, a business article by Tim Denning, or a writing advice article by Shaunta Grimes, I will unconsciously mirror their style in my own writing.

But then I realize that there are many worse things than sounding like those talented authors. Reading good writing tunes your ear to write good prose.

Follow the icons in your field. Read their work. Learn from them…

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