10 Writing Tips from Legendary Writing Teacher William Zinsser

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Image used with per­mis­sion by Mark Ostow/Yale Alum­ni Mag­a­zine

Author William Zinss­er died at his Man­hat­tan home on Tues­day, May 12, 2015. The 92-year-old left behind one of the clas­sics of writ­ing instruc­tion man­u­als as his lega­cy, On Writ­ing Well. Since its first print­ing in 1976, the book has sold 1.5 mil­lion copies, and Zinss­er made sure to update the book often. He loved the rev­o­lu­tion in writ­ing that com­put­ers brought, call­ing it a mir­a­cle.

Nev­er have so many Amer­i­cans writ­ten so pro­fuse­ly and with so few inhi­bi­tions. Which means that it wasn’t a cog­ni­tive prob­lem after all. It was a cul­tur­al prob­lem, root­ed in that old buga­boo of Amer­i­can edu­ca­tion: fear.

Zinss­er stressed sim­plic­i­ty and effi­cien­cy, but also style and enthu­si­asm. Here are 10 of his many tips for improv­ing your writ­ing.

1. Don’t make lazy word choic­es: “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. The Eng­lish lan­guage is rich in strong and sup­ple words. Take the time to root around and find the ones you want.”

2. On the oth­er hand, avoid jar­gon and big words: “Clear think­ing becomes clear writ­ing; one can’t exist with­out the oth­er. It’s impos­si­ble for a mud­dy thinker to write good Eng­lish.”

3. Writ­ing is hard work: “A clear sen­tence is no acci­dent. Very few sen­tences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remem­ber this in moments of despair. If you find that writ­ing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”

4. 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.”

5. And the more you keep in first per­son and true to your­self, the soon­er you will find your style: “Sell your­self, and your sub­ject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own iden­ti­ty and your own opin­ions. Writ­ing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it.

6. Don’t ask who your audi­ence is…you are the audi­ence: “You are writ­ing pri­mar­i­ly to please your­self, and if you go about it with enjoy­ment you will also enter­tain the read­ers who are worth writ­ing for.”

7. Study the mas­ters but also your con­tem­po­raries: “Writ­ing is learned by imi­ta­tion. If any­one asked me how I learned to write, I’d say I learned by read­ing the men and women who were doing the kind of writ­ing I want­ed to do and try­ing to fig­ure out how they did it.”

8. Yes, the the­saurus is your friend: “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. If, hav­ing found the scalawag and the scape­grace, you want to know how they dif­fer, then go to the dic­tio­nary.”

9. Read every­thing you write out loud for rhythm and sound: “Good writ­ers of prose must be part poet, always lis­ten­ing to what they write.”

10. And don’t ever believe you are going to write any­thing defin­i­tive: “Decide what cor­ner of your sub­ject you’re going to bite off, and be con­tent to cov­er it well and stop.”

Zinss­er fol­lows his own advice, in that this book (pick up a copy here) is a joy to read, with a rol­lick­ing humor and an infec­tious enthu­si­asm. May he rest in peace!

Final­ly, as some­one who can’t stand to hear the word ‘unique’ mod­i­fied, Zinss­er has this to say: “…being ‘rather unique’ is no more pos­si­ble than being rather preg­nant.’”

Relat­ed Con­tent

David Ogilvy’s 1982 Memo “How to Write” Offers 10 Pieces of Time­less Advice

Ray Brad­bury Offers 12 Essen­tial Writ­ing Tips and Explains Why Lit­er­a­ture Saves Civ­i­liza­tion

Writ­ing Tips by Hen­ry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Mar­garet Atwood, Neil Gaiman & George Orwell

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the FunkZone Pod­cast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (6)
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  • SS says:

    Draw­ing specif­i­cal­ly from the expe­ri­ence of see­ing my recent­ly chris­tened moth­er of a friend bare­ly show­ing at 2 months then keep-your-overnight-bag-ready at 8.5 months, I’d argue that being “rather preg­nant” is pos­si­ble.

    And what to say of “unique”? Today’s via­bil­i­ty of “rather unique” fol­lows from a dilu­tion of the mean­ing of “unique”. The word has been used so much that it has acquired gra­da­tions.

    Thanks for the great post. I’ve actu­al­ly just hit a wall in my cur­rent writ­ing project, and these points are refresh­ing. They’ve def­i­nite­ly inspired me to get back to it. I’ll be order­ing Zinsser’s book as wel. May he rest in peace.

  • J Cross says:

    I am sad to hear the William Zinss­er has died. My copy of “On Writ­ing Well” dates back more than two decades. I often re-read sec­tions for inspi­ra­tion and to expe­ri­ence once again the humor with which he deliv­ers advice. I was a sci­ence writer and edi­tor for three decades and often rec­om­mend­ed “On Writ­ing Well” (and Strunk and White’s “The Ele­ments of Style”) to writ­ers work­ing for me. Both are clas­sics that will nev­er go out of style.

  • Mahalakshmi says:

    Good expla­na­tion

  • Maureen Mackenzie says:

    This book pro­vides the clar­i­ty, sim­plic­i­ty, brevi­ty, and human­i­ty that must be inte­grat­ed into all busi­ness writ­ing. I intro­duce this book to all of my grad­u­ate stu­dents.

    Mau­reen Macken­zie, Dean
    Divi­sion of Busi­ness
    Mol­loy Col­lege

  • Daisy Simpson says:

    This arti­cle helps to under­stand the way my audi­ence can think about my con­tent so this way of think­ing can help a writer to write a good piece of con­tent that can attract the read­er. I believe that if a writer can think like his audi­ence than the con­tent or sto­ry will be mind­blow­ing for the read­ers. Thanks for the tips and keep shar­ing.


    Good morn­ing!

    Every writer, in my opin­ion, should know and use these terms when writ­ing. Your writ­ing skills, as well as the way you present your sen­tences, are out­stand­ing. Now I’m intrigued as to where you get your great writ­ing con­tent ideas. For the time being, may I pro­ceed in the same man­ner as you?

    Last­ly, Man, you’ve writ­ten a fan­tas­tic arti­cle. Con­tin­ue to do a great job. WRITING TIPS

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