This week one of my literary heroes, William Zinsser, passed away at age 92. He penned the definitive guide to writing nonfiction: On Writing Well. I first picked up the book in college when it was assigned by a journalism professor. Today I want to share with you five lessons I learned from Zinsser's work along with some of my favorite passages from that book. So much of it has impacted my writing style and influenced who I am as a writer today.
5 Lessons I Learned on Writing from William Zinsser
1. Edit. Edit. Edit. "Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it's beautiful? Simplify, simplify."
2. Don't get bogged down by worrying about what the reader will think of you. "If they doze off in the middle of your article because you have been careless about a technical detail, the fault is yours. But on the larger issue of whether the reader likes you, or likes what you are saying or how you are saying it, or agrees with it, or feels an affinity for yoru sense of humor or your vision of life, don't give him a moment's worry. You are who you are, he is who he is, and either you'll get along or you won't."
3. Talk like a 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 ('he's a fine individual'), please don't write it.
4. Read good work. "Make a habit of reading what is being written today and what has been written by earlier masters. 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."
5. To be great you must be intrinsically motivated. "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. Too many writers are browbeaten into settling for less than their best."
If you have an interest in growing as a writer I heartily recommend you read On Writing Well. These are just a few nuggets from a 300-page work. I'm so grateful that Zinsser took the time to write this book and that he will live on through his writing for generations to come.