What William Zinsser Knew About Writing
- On May 20, 2015
“There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.” So wrote William Zinsser in On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. Zinsser, who died last week at 92, implored people to write simply, clearly, and briefly. “If you find yourself hopelessly mired in a long sentence, it’s probably because you’re trying to make the sentence do more than it can reasonably do,” he wrote, citing people’s tendency to cram too many—often unrelated—thoughts into a single sentence.
He wasn’t terribly optimistic about corporate America’s ability to communicate plainly. “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.” Ouch!
I went back to my well-worn copy of his book—it’s filled with no-nonsense advice—to find some of his best pointers for everyday business writers like us. Here are a few (some in his words, some in mine):
- Beware of the long word that’s no better than the short word: “assistance” (help), “numerous” (many), “remainder” (rest), “initial” (first), “implement” (do), “sufficient” (enough), “attempt” (try), “referred to as” (called).
- Make your first sentence the most important. If it doesn’t make your reader go to the second one, your piece is dead.
- Keep your paragraphs short.
- Prune and strive for order.
- When a sentence isn’t working, ask yourself whether you need it at all. More often than not, you don’t.
- Treat everything you write seriously, whether it’s an email, a blog post, a proposal, a presentation, or a report—even a Post-it note.
- Write in a natural-sounding voice and make sure most of your sentences mention people. Readers identify with people—and with people doing things. Zinsser describes a school that sent a letter to its students’ parents about “a special phone communication system” it had established “to provide additional opportunities for parent input.” Parents don’t want to receive that kind of letter, he wrote. They want to be told the school is going to make it easier for them to call their kids’ teachers and discuss how they’re doing. “Just because people work for an institution, they don’t have to write like one.”
- Take advantage of your subconscious. Have you ever wrestled with a piece of copy only to find that after putting it aside for a day, you’re able to fix it more easily? That’s your subconscious at work. So start early and give your thoughts time to percolate. They’ll percolate anywhere, which gives you an excuse to get up and take a walk or lie down and take a nap.