On Writing Well – Author Resources

There are so many author resources out there that it is sometimes hard to know where to start. In this Author Resources series, I help you out, by recommending some of my favorite books for (aspiring) writers. In this installment, I present to you: “On Writing Well. The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction”.

Reasons to Read On Writing Well

On Writing Well cover

Though On Writing Well deals specifically with issues nonfiction authors might experience, does not mean his work holds no value for the fiction author. His chapters focus on issues such as simplicity, clutter, style, audience, words, usage, lead and ending… Topics any writer will struggle with. So let me give you three reasons why you should read this book. 

1. He makes writing simple

Like many of the authors I discussed in this book series, William Zinsser is of the opinion that good writing is simple writing. Not only does he recommend you keep your words and sentences simple, he also takes pressure off of the first draft. And this is important. If you are like me, you will want every single sentence you put down on (virtual or physical) paper to be perfect. It needs to be beautiful, poetic, original and exciting.

On Rewriting

But the reality is: that’s not how writing works. And setting those standards for yourself will only hold you back. It will cause anxiety, stress and often disappointment. Zinsser says:

The point is that clear writing is the result of a lot of tinkering.

Many people assume that professional writers don’t need to rewrite; the words just fall into place. On the contrary, careful writers can’t stop fiddling.

And this is really useful to keep in mind. Not just for me, as a professional editor — though he basically makes sure to keep me in business. But as a coach I find that the problem many people experience is that they are held back by their own fears. The fear that they are not good enough (I don’t know any writer who doesn’t feel that way). Or the fear that they will never get their work finished. 

Now, knowing that a first draft’s job is simply to exist (my favorite writing quote) means that you don’t have to punish yourself for not having written perfect sentences. Your first draft is your source material. It is the basis on which you’ll build your final text. Which means you can relax and trust your future self will perfect your work. Which makes writing your first draft incredibly simple: just put something on paper!

2. He explains the specific challenges of writing the most popular nonfiction genres

Though there are specific guides dealing with the genres he discusses, On Writing Well is unusual in that it talks about a variety of different nonfiction genres. Again: this doesn’t mean the chapters are only useful for people writing in that genre.

For example, the chapter on interviews is called “Writing about people”. Which is incredibly useful when you want to interview someone for a newspaper or magazine article. But when you write a biography, you’re also writing about people. And honestly, the same is true when you write fiction. The techniques and questions he discusses, therefore, are relevant for almost any writer out there. The same is true for the chapter on the travel article (called: Writing about Places). And the memoir (Writing about Yourself). Because honestly, almost everyone deals with places. And the saying goes that all writing is autobiographical. 

3. He uses beautiful, funny and heartbreaking examples of great writing

I can honestly say that this writing manual made both laugh and cry. And yes, I was as surprised as you are. The fact is that quotes are in a book on writing what images are in a book on places. They’re illustrations. They make the subject matter tangible. And as William Zinsser is of the opinion that you should write nonfiction in narrative form, whenever you can, his examples all make for great stories. Though it does go into the nitty-gritty of using dashes (my favorite form of punctuation), and deals with jargon (he’s against it), this book simply is a very enjoyable read. I found it to be beautiful, educational, but most importantly: inspiring. 

So what's next?

If you have thoughts to share about this book or blogpost, I would love to hear from you! You can use the comment section below or find me on social media. 

If you are a (nonfiction) writer and want me to help you work on your text, you can go to my editing or coaching pages to find out how I can help you. Or you can simply schedule your first free video meeting to discuss your project with me directly

And if you’re looking for more author resources, just check out all posts in this category, or visit one of my three latest author resources posts by clicking on the links below.