Book Review: On Writing Well: An Informal Guide To Writing Nonfiction

Introduction

William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction, was also an editor, a journalist, and most important a professor of nonfiction writing at Yale University. He graduated from Princeton University and authored eighteen books, the last being Writing Places (2009). Zinsser also won an award for digital commentary from National Magazine in 2012. As a result of many years of experience, he combines practical advice with personal and creative illustrations to help those who want to become better at the craft of writing. The purpose of On Writing Well is to demonstrate how to apply fiction writing principles in nonfiction writing, which also includes the many forms that journalism can take (Lc 64). His audience is clear from the beginning: students, editors, teachers, and people who want to learn how to write in general (Lc 86).

Summary

The thesis or message of Zinsser is the emphasis on the intangibles that produce good writing, which he defines as confidence, enjoyment, intention, and integrity (Lc 79), in other words, the vital point is finding the humanity through clarity, simplicity, and brevity (171). These four themes run like veins throughout the chapters; transporting life in every page the reader flips. Every single major division and chapter emphasize it, and he is always seeking to find a connection with all four of them. The first four chapters are a demonstration of these principles he holds so dearly. Chapter one presents how crucial it is to find the humanity in writing; chapter two seeks to advise how to simplify the writing; chapter three is called “clutter,” which accentuate clarity; and chapter four deals with the brevity by which one needs to write. All other chapters are built upon the foundation of these four themes. Moreover, knowing Zinsser through his writing makes one aware of his personality, character, and passion. Even though he made clear his four pillars of faith, the most important of all is the humanity which brings the writing to life, and that is what this evaluation is about.

The product that any writer has to sell, says Zinsser,  is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is (5); which demonstrates his eagerness to shape the character of the writers who then bring feelings and emotions to the table. Who sweeps out the clutter revealing its clarity in the different aspects writing reaches, who is succinct but precise, and who simplifies the writing but not in a simplistic way. To substantiate this claim, the author highlights numerous times how he is interested more in the human being than on robotic writing (the task, of course, starts from chapter two forward because the character and humanity is the main point of chapter one).

The emphasis in the humanity of writers is highly valued and upheld. The reader sees this in a variety of forms and different contexts. Advocating for first-person writing, Zinsser states that “writers are obviously at their most natural when they write in the first person. Writing is an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper, and it will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity. Therefore, I urge people to write in the first person: to use ‘I’ and ‘me’ and ‘we’ and ‘us’” (20). Moreover, in chapter five, Zinsser praises the warmth and the humanity found in E. B. White writing about a man who loves hens (27). Again, chapter eleven, the author states that humanity is essential to be considered a writer of nonfiction literature (98). Furthermore, by many examples, the chapters on business and science demonstrate how the lack of human emotion attached to the words expresses a robotic writing — the author complains about the writer’s fear of revealing that there is a human being behind the words (165-174). On the other hand, sports writing is known by their presentation of human emotion (182). Finally, since the last part of the book is about the attitude one must have towards writing, it is expected that the author underlines and advice in many forms and many ways to when and how to display the humanity in writing (241-287).

Critical Evaluation

One of the strengths of On Writing Well is the connections Zinsser makes with his four driving wheels. As readers come in contact with his view for this book, it is critical to understand these tenants that drive all his assertions: clarity, simplicity, brevity, and humanity. For if one does not recognize that in the beginning, he or she will fail to see the big picture. Moreover, they will only see this book as bits and pieces of advice scattered throughout the pages. The four principles are pretty much the focus and the mission he seeks to underline and find in every writer. For example, the end of chapter seven, he masterfully links the usage of words with simplicity, clarity, and humanity. “Goog usage, to me, consists of using good words if they already exist—as they almost always do—to express myself clearly and simply to someone else. You might say it’s how I verbalize the interpersonal” (44). On this excerpt, the reader notices how Zinsser uses a very concise sentence to emphasize his principles. He desires to express himself “clearly,” and “simply” through his humanity.  

Another strength demonstrated by Zinsser is the fulfillment of the purpose set in the beginning, by many creative examples and real-life experiences, he takes the reader on a journey of learning through his lenses. For instance, in chapter nineteen, he lays the principle of humor writing by saying that humor is the secret weapon of the nonfiction writer; for making an important point that otherwise would be hard to strictly and categorically be made (207). The personal experience he uses to exemplify this principle is to transport his reader into the 1960s, a time when women used to use curlers on their hair, and that in his view, it was very problematic because it looked like they were using it twenty-four hours a day. Furthermore, he concludes, that in order to efficiently address the problem without causing harm to their feelings is to use a technique, which he called comic device — satire, parody, irony, lampoon, nonsense — to disguise the argument and make his voice heard (208). This comic device helped people see with a fresh eye, the bizarre aspect of the trend of the day.

When it comes to clarity in setting the right understanding for readers, however, most of the students reading this book will agree that Zinsser does not do a decent job in the introduction. In a sequence of statements, he more or less confuses the reader than shine light on the thesis of the book. First, talking about the point of the book, he states “nothing has replaced the writer. He or she is still stuck with the same old job of saying something that other people will want to read” (Lc 49). Second, about the purpose, he says “My purpose is to make myself and my experience available” (Lc 74). Third, in the very next sentence, he claims that his concerns have shifted and that he is more “interested” in the intangibles that produce good writing — confidence, enjoyment, intention, integrity (Lc 74). Last, at the very end of the preliminaries, he highlights that On Writing Well is a craft book that emphasizes principles that have not changed for the last thirty years, and to become good writers, it still requires the plain old hard thinking and the tools of the English Language (Lc 106). As one can see, these set of declarations fail to hold the clarity he exhorts students to have in order to be good writers. Nevertheless, it is common knowledge that the standard way of thinking about the purpose and the thesis of a book are distinct from each other. One cannot quickly detect what the thesis of the book is but that does not mean that the thesis is not there, it only means that it will become clear as readers advance chapter by chapter, paying close attention to what Zinsser is underlining most frequent.

Another downfall of Zinsser is in chapter ten, where he abandons many of his principles to embrace a political agenda, which he calls “sexism.” That is the most significant part of chapter ten, and he spends all his efforts to make writers feel bad about how they use pronouns. In one instance, he takes upon himself the feminist’s raised problem of words that contain “man” in it, such as “chairman,” and “spokesman,” to suggest that, as writers, one should avoid such vocabulary and seek alternative options (81). Unfortunately, he failed to see a much easier solution to this “problem,” which is to simply acknowledge, since the beginning, that his readers are males and females — not to mention that he would have much harder time in 2018 with the nonbinary identity imposed by the revolutionaries, if he were to hold his view to the end.

Conclusion

As a final thought, Zinsser makes writing looks easy, but the reality is, his life experiences and years of practice, display a clear picture of how well he can make a dull subject interesting. The humble approach he takes at the beginning, gives him credibility and trust amongst readers and writers. I appreciate his emphasis on the character of an individual — especially on the interview chapter, which he stresses the value of being truthful to what people say or do not say — how journalist’s ethical duty to the person being interviewed is to present his position accurately (108). The most impactful chapter on my life as a reader and a writer-to-be is the humor chapter — I found myself many times literally laughing out loud in many of his examples, which made the reading very much enjoyable. But despite the minor weaknesses of the book, On Writing Well is a must-read for anyone who desires to grow their skill of writing. If anyone wants to write better, efficiently, and precisely, this is the book; a book for those who love the English language; a book for those who need encouragement; a book for those who are looking for inspiration for his or her next project. Perhaps a book that speaks to the writer within.

By: Tiago Hirayama

If you would like buy this book on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2XKmUOg

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