As the title indicates, On Writing Well is a book about the craft of writing, with a focus on writing nonfiction.
The author practices what he preaches: each sentence is carefully crafted, each word carefully selected. That makes it a pleasure to read. Only the part about the different forms of writing nonfiction could have been shorter. Sometimes it feels a bit old-fashioned because the original version of the book was written more than 30 years ago.
Writing isn't a skill that some people are born with and others aren't, like a gift for art or music. Writing is talking to someone else on paper. Anybody who can think clearly can write clearly, about any subject at all.
[...] the essence of writing is rewriting.
Good writers know that very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time or the fifth time.
Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is. I often find myself reading with interest about a topic I never thought would interest me – some scientific quest, perhaps. What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field.
Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.
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.
Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can't exist without the other.
Who is this elusive creature, the reader? The reader is someone with an attention span of about 30 seconds – a person assailed by many forces competing for attention.
With each rewrite I try to make what I have written tighter, stronger and more precise, eliminating every element that's not doing useful work. Then I go over it once more, reading it aloud, and am always amazed at how much clutter can still be cut.
Writers must constantly ask: what am I trying to say? [...] Then they must look at what they have written and ask: have I said it?
Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident.
If you find that writing is hard, it's because it is hard.
Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn't be there. [...] Examine every word you put on paper. You'll find a surprising number that don't serve any purpose.
Clutter is political correctness gone amok.
Clutter is the official language used by corporations to hide their mistakes.
[...] style is organic to the person doing the writing, as much a part of him as his hair, or, if he is bald, his lack of it.
Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself. No rule, however, is harder to follow. It requires writers to do two things that by their metabolism are impossible. They must relax, and they must have confidence.
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".
"Who am I writing for?" It's a fundamental question, and it has a fundamental answer: You are writing for yourself. Don't try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience – every reader is a different person.
Never say anything in writing that you wouldn't comfortably say in conversation. If you're not a person who says "indeed" or "moreover", or who calls someone an individual, please don't write it.
Make a habit of reading what is being written today and what has been written by earlier masters. Writing is learned by imitation.
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.
Bear in mind, when you're choosing words and stringing them together, how they sound. This may seem absurd: readers read with their eyes. But in fact they hear what they are reading far more than you realize.
The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.
Unity is the anchor of good writing. [...] Unity not only keeps the reader from straggling off in all directions; it satisfies the readers' subconscious need for order and reassures them that all is well at the helm. Therefore choose from among the many variables and stick to your choice.
One choice is unity of pronoun. Are you going to write in the first person, as a participant, or in the third person, as an observer?
Unity of tense is another choice. Most people write mainly in the past tense, but some people write agreeably in the present. What is not agreeable is to switch back and forth.
Another choice is unity of mood. You might want to talk to the reader in the casual voice that The New Yorker has strenuously refined. Or you might want to approach the reader with a certain formality to describe a serious event or to present a set of important facts. Both tones are acceptable. In fact, any tone is acceptable. But don't mix two or three.
Every writing project must be reduced before you start to write. Therefore think small. Decide what corner of your subject you're going to bite off, and be content to cover it well and stop.
As for what point you want to make, every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn't have before.
The Lead and the Ending
The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn't induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn't induce him to continue to the third sentence, it's equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the "lead".
Readers want to know – very soon – what's in it for them. Therefore your lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading. It must cajole him with freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humor, or surprise, or with an unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question. Anything will do, as long as it nudges his curiosity and tugs at his sleeve.
The lead must provide hard details that tell the reader why the piece was written and why he ought to read it.
[...] you should always collect more material than you will use.
Narrative is the oldest and most compelling method of holding someone's attention; everybody wants to be told a story. Always look for ways to convey your information in narrative form.
Knowing when to end an article is far more important than most writers realize. You should give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did to your first.
The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right. They didn't expect the article to end so soon, or so abruptly, or to say what it said.
Bits & Pieces
Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb. The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style – in clarity and vigor – is the difference between life and death for a writer.
Most adverbs are unnecessary. You will clutter your sentence and annoy the reader if you choose a verb that has a specific meaning and then add an adverb that carries the same meaning.
Most adjectives are also unnecessary. Like adverbs, 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" and dozens more. They dilute your style and your persuasiveness.
Don't hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.
Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of the reader's trust. Readers want a writer who believes in himself and in what he is saying.
Don't use the exclamation point unless you must to achieve a certain effect. [...] Instead, construct your sentence so that the order of the words will put the emphasis where you want it.
The dash is used in two ways. One is to amplify or justify in the second part of the sentence a thought you stated in the first part. [...] The other use involves two dashes, which set apart a parenthetical thought within a longer sentence.
Don't inflate an incident to make it more outlandish than it actually was. If the reader catches you in just one bogus statement that you are trying to pass off as true, everything you write thereafter will be suspect.
Keep your paragraphs short. Writing is visual – it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain. Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, whereas a long chunk of type can discourage a reader from even starting to read.
We all have an emotional equity in our first draft; we can't believe that it wasn't born perfect. But the odds are close to 100 percent that it wasn't. Most writers don't initially say what they want to say, or say it as well as they could. The newly hatched sentence almost always has something wrong with it. It's not clear. It's not logical. It's verbose. It's klunky. It's pretentious. It's boring. It's full of clutter. It's full of clichés. It lacks rhythm. It can be read in several different ways. It doesn't lead out of the previous sentence. It doesn't... The point is that clear writing is the result of a lot of tinkering.
What do I mean by "rewriting"? I don't mean writing one draft and then writing a different second version, and then a third. Most rewriting consists of reshaping and tightening and refining the raw material you wrote on your first try. Much of it consists of making sure you've given the reader a narrative flow he can follow with no trouble from beginning to end.
People of every age will write better and with more enjoyment if they write about what they care about.
No subject is too specialized or too quirky if you make an honest connection with it when you write about it.
Nonfiction as Literature
Ultimately every writer must follow the path that feels most comfortable. For most people learning to write, that path is nonfiction. It enables them to write about what they know or can observe or can find out.
Writing About People: The Interview
Nothing so animates writing as someone telling what he thinks or what he does – in his own words. His own words will always be better than your words, even if you are the most elegant stylist in the land.
Never go into an interview without doing whatever homework you can. [...] You will be resented if you inquire about facts you could have learned in advance.
Never let anything go out into the world that you don't understand.
Try to achieve a balance between what the subject is saying in his words and what you are writing in your words.
Writing About Places: The Travel Article
People and places are the twin pillars on which most nonfiction is built. Every human event happens somewhere, and the reader wants to know what that somewhere was like.
Whatever place you write about, go there often enough to isolate the qualities that make it distinctive. Usually this will be some combination of the place and the people who inhabit it.
Writing About Yourself: The Memoir
If you consciously write for a teacher or for an editor, you'll end up not writing for anybody. If you write for yourself, you'll reach the people you want to write for.
Make sure every component in your memoir is doing useful work. Write about yourself, by all means, with confidence and with pleasure. But see that all the details – people, places, events, anecdotes, ideas, emotions – are moving your story steadily along.
Unlike autobiography, which spans an entire life, memoir assumes the life and ignores most of it. The memoir writer takes us back to some corner of his or her past that was unusually intense – childhood, for instance – or that was framed by war or some other social upheaval.
Memoir isn't the summary of a life: it's a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition. It may look like a casual and even random calling up of bygone events. It's not; it's a deliberate construction.
The crucial ingredient in memoir is, of course, people. Sounds and smells and songs and sleeping porches will take you just so far. Finally you must summon back the men and women and children who notably crossed your life. What was it that made them memorable – what turn of mind, what crazy habits?
Science and Technology
Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all.
A tenet of journalism is that "the reader knows nothing". As tenets go, it's not flattering, but a technical writer can never forget it. You can't assume that your readers know what you assume everybody knows, or that they still remember what was once explained to them.
The principle of scientific and technical writing applies to all nonfiction writing. It's the principle of leading readers who know nothing, step by step, to a grasp of subjects they didn't think they had an aptitude for or were afraid they were too dumb to understand.
Business Writing: Writing in Your Job
Managers at every level are prisoners of the notion that a simple style reflects a simple mind. Actually a simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking; a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too arrogant, or too dumb, or too lazy to organize his thoughts.
Remember that what you write is often the only chance you'll get to present yourself to someone whose business or money or good will you need. If what you write is ornate, or pompous, or fuzzy, that's how you'll be perceived. The reader has no other choice.
Writing About the Arts: Critics and Columnists
To write about the arts from the inside – to appraise a new work, to evaluate a performance, to recognize what's good and what's bad – calls for a special set of skills and a special body of knowledge. It's necessary, in short, to be a critic – which, at some point in his or her career, almost every writer wants to be.
Critics should like – or, better still, love – the medium they are reviewing. If you think movies are dumb, don't write about them. The reader deserves a movie buff who will bring along a reservoir of knowledge, passion and prejudice.
Don't give away too much of the plot. Tell readers just enough to let them decide whether it's the kind of story they tend to enjoy, but not so much that you'll kill their enjoyment.
Criticism is a serious intellectual act. It tries to evaluate serious works of art and to place them in the context of what has been done before in that medium or by that artist.
Humor is the secret weapon of the nonfiction writer. It's secret because so few writers realize that humor is often their best tool – and sometimes their only tool – for making an important point.
The Sound of Your Voice
Don't alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page [...].
Readers will stop reading you if they think you are talking down to them. Nobody wants to be patronized.
For writers and other creative artists, knowing what not to do is a major component of taste.
Never hesitate to imitate another writer. Imitation is part of the creative process for anyone learning an art or a craft.
Find the best writers in the fields that interest you and read their work aloud. Get their voice and their taste into your ear – their attitude toward language. Don't worry that by imitating them you'll lose your own voice and your own identity. Soon enough you will shed those skins and become who you are supposed to become.
Enjoyment, Fear and Confidence
Writing is such lonely work that I try to keep myself cheered up. If something strikes me as funny in the act of writing, I throw it in just to amuse myself. If I think it's funny I assume that a few other people will find it funny, and that seems to me to be a good day's work. It doesn't bother me that a certain number of readers will not be amused.
The blank piece of paper or the blank computer screen, waiting to be filled with our wonderful words, can freeze us into not writing any words at all, or writing words that are less than wonderful. I'm often dismayed by the sludge I see appearing on my screen if I approach writing as a task – the day's work – and not with some enjoyment. My only consolation is that I'll get another shot at those dismal sentences tomorrow and the next day and the day after.
How can you fight off all those fears of disapproval and failure? One way to generate confidence is to write about subjects that interest you and that you care about.
Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That's almost the whole point of becoming a writer. I've used writing to give myself an interesting life and a continuing education. If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write. Learning is a tonic.
If you want your writing to convey enjoyment, write about people you respect. Writing to destroy and to scandalize can be as destructive to the writer as it is to the subject.
If you master the tools of the trade – the fundamentals of interviewing and of orderly construction – and if you bring to the assignment your general intelligence and your humanity, you can write about any subject.
Trust your common sense to figure out what you need to know, and don't be afraid to ask a dumb question. If the expert thinks you're dumb, that's his problem.
The Tyranny of the Final Product
[...] there are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with getting published. Writing for yourself is a powerful search mechanism: there's no better way to find out who you are and what you know and what you think. Writing for your children and your grandchildren – the family history or the personal or local memoir – is also satisfying.
We can write to affirm and to celebrate, or we can write to debunk and to destroy; the choice is ours.
A Writer's Decisions
Learning how to organize a long article is just as important as learning how to write a clear and pleasing sentence. All your clear and pleasing sentences will fall apart if you don't keep remembering that writing is linear and sequential, that logic is the glue that holds it together, that tension must be maintained from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next and from one section to the next, and that narrative – good old-fashioned storytelling – is what should pull your readers along without their noticing the tug. The only thing they should notice is that you have made a sensible plan for your journey. Every step should seem inevitable.
The hardest decision about any article is how to begin it. The lead must grab the reader with a provocative idea and continue with each paragraph to hold him or her in a tight grip, gradually adding information. The point of the information is to get readers so interested that they will stick around for the whole trip.
Readers can process only one idea at a time, and they do it in linear sequence. Much of the trouble that writers get into comes from trying to make one sentence do too much work. Never be afraid to break a long sentence into two short ones, or even three.
No less important than decisions about structure are decisions about individual words. Banality is the enemy of good writing; the challenge is to not write like everybody else.
No writing decision is too small to be worth a large expenditure of time. Both you and the reader know it when your finicky labor is rewarded by a sentence coming out right.
Readers should always feel that you know more about your subject than you've put in writing.
As a nonfiction writer you must get on the plane. If a subject interests you, go after it, even if it's in the next county or the next state or the next country. It's not going to come looking for you.
Decide what you want to do. Then decide to do it. Then do it.
Write as Well as You Can
[...] good writing can appear anywhere, even in the lowly newspaper, and that what matters is the writing itself, not the medium where it's published.
[...] quality is its own reward.
If you would like to write better than everybody else, you have to want to write better than everybody else. You must take an obsessive pride in the smallest details of your craft. And you must be willing to defend what you've written against the various middlemen – editors, agents and publishers – whose sights may be different from yours, whose standards not as high.
What a good editor brings to a piece of writing is an objective eye that the writer has long since lost, and there is no end of ways in which an editor can improve a manuscript: pruning, shaping, clarifying, tidying a hundred inconsistencies of tense and pronoun and location and tone, noticing all the sentences that could be read in two different ways, dividing awkward long sentences into short ones, putting the writer back on the main road if he has strayed down a side path, building bridges where the writer has lost the reader by not paying attention to his transitions, questioning matters of judgment and taste. An editor's hand must also be invisible. Whatever he adds in his own words shouldn't sound like his own words; they should sound like the writer's words.
Writing well means believing in your writing and believing in yourself, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel. You will write only as well as you make yourself write.