Toby Wilkins

Book Notes – On writing well

  • Author:  William Zinsser
  • Rating: 10/10
  • Comment: A well written, interesting book with great tips for writing great non fiction of any kind.
  • Amazon: On writing well


With good writing, any topic can be made interesting.

Write with humanity and warmth.

Clutter is the enemy of good fiction writing. Strip back every sentence to its cleanest components. Keep editing, and chopping back so only the essential is left.

Clear thinking becomes clear writing. If you do not fully understand and are clear on your message, the writing will be cluttered and messy.

The modern readers attention span is very short.Writing well is hard work.
Keep editing, cutting back and pruning until its clean, tight and made of the key components.

  • There are lots of words that are already implied or obvious to the reader, than you can just remove.
  • You can have to strip writing down, before you can build it back up.

Don’t use long or complicated words, when simple short ones will do.
Readers want the writer to sound human and genuine. Avoid self inflated writing.

Writers are most natural, when writing in the first person.

We are all fundamentally writing for ourselves. Readers and editors do not know what they want, until they read it. 

Relax and say what you want to say.

Ask yourself, ‘is what you have written, what you would speak and sound like?’.

Develop a respect for words, and be curious. Use a dictionary and thesaurus.

Readers, read with there eyes. Consider layout and spacing. Short paragraphs is best.

Writing should be like music as you read it. natural beats in length and breaks. If its all short and the same, its boring.

Write entirely by ear, and read everything aloud.

Writing is learned. The best way to learn, is to do it regularly and often.

Two key choices when you write.

  • pronoun – First person, a participant, third person or an observer.
  • Tense – are you writing in the past, or present.
  • Stick to one, and do not change.

Before you start, ask yourself “In what capacity am i going to address the reader”.

Ask yourself, “What one point do I want to make”. Leave the reader with one provocative though.

The most important sentence is the first. From then on, keep enticing the reader to continue as you end each sentence and paragraph until you have them hooked.

Everyone likes a story, looks for ways to convey information in a narrative.

The ending is important. It will come naturally and don’t drag it out.
Surprise is refreshing in non fiction writing.

Use active verbs.

Most adverbs and adjectives are unnecessary.

Good writing is lean. Cut out little qualifiers like ‘a bit’, ‘sort of’, ‘rather’, ‘very’.

The easiest way out of a long complicated sentence is to break it up with a period.

Never use an exclamation mark!

Replace semi-colons or colons with a period or dash.

A dash is an invaluable tool – it can get you out of tight corners. Applies emphasis on the following words or can be used to convey thought mid sentance.

When shifting direction, alert the user. ‘But’ at the start of a sentence is a strong starter.

Choose words you would naturally say when speaking.

The subconscious mind of the reader does more interpretation than you think. You can leave obvious words out.

‘We’ is a good replacement for ‘he. Try and be approachable to all readers, but overdoing ‘he’ to ‘he or her’ is onerous and unnecessarily damaging to the writing.

Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost.

You will enjoy writing about what you care about, and as a result write better. Go with your personal interest.

When writing about people, learn to ask questions and get them talking.

When interviewing, start by just chatting. Keep your notebook hidden to start. This will help them relax. Type up your notes soon after. Worst case, you can always call them back to clarify.

If writing about travel, avoid the fluff that everyone knows about. Write about something unique that will interest the reader. People aren’t interested in reliving your holiday.

The topic you are most familiar with, is yourself. People are interested in people. Memoir’s are fascinating. Be detailed.
Technical writing

  • Scientific technical writing should be approachable to the layman. If not, the writer is probably hiding behind his lack of understanding of the subject.
  • Order and structure are very important to technical writing. Tell a story, and bring the reader with you. Build up knowledge like an upside down pyramid.
  • Good technical writing really forces you to know and understand the topic.
  • Write like a person, not like a scientist.

Business writing

  • Emails, memo’s, report and announcements should be taken seriously as well.
  • Avoid pretentious business lingo. Cut that rubbish out and write like a human talking. Readers identify with humans.
  • The way to warm up business writing, is to re locate the missing ‘I’. Be yourself when you write.

Humour is the secret weapon of non fiction writing. But don’t strain for it, humour is built on surprise.Relaxed writing sounds like the author is talking to you.

If you like another writers style, copy and imitate them.

If your struck with the thought ‘that’s interesting’, it probably is. Write about it.

Don’t focus on the end result, its daunting and you may never get there.

Instead, focus on the now. Keep doing that, and the end will naturally arrive.

Readers process one idea at a time. Move along a story sequentially.

Constantly as yourself, ‘what does the reader want to know next’. Then, write that.

Decide what you want to do. Then decide to do it. Then do it.

Writers are the custodians of history. Write what you want remembered.

When you write, remember its your story and not any one elses. You have the final vito.

Tackle a larger writing project, in small manageable chunks. Sit down, and just work on a chunk at a time. Keep doing it. The result will come.

Defend your writing against the middle men, eg publishers and editors.

Don’t let them edit you out of your own writing. You can say no. These people can be invaluable, but they can also cause a lot of harm.

A good editors edit, should not sound like his own words. It should still sound like you.

An editor should never let anything go into publication, that he doesn’t understand.

What you write is yours, and no body else’s.