On Writing Well by William Zinsser

On Writing Well

RATING: 10/10…READ: July 14, 2011

The nonfiction writing bible. While I usually hate most textbooks on writing, this was a joy to get through and learn the art of nonfiction writing. Written from a very human perspective; does not read like a textbook.

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Nobody told all the new computer writers that the essence of writing is rewriting.


1. The Transaction

For there isn’t any “right” way to do such personal work. There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of methods, and any method that helps you to say what you want to say is the right method for you.

Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is.

And it’s not a question of gimmicks to “personalize” the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.

2. Simplicity

The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components:

-Every word that serves no function, every 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

Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.

The reader is someone with an attention span of about 30 seconds—a person assailed by many forces competing for attention.

If the reader is lost, it’s usually because the writer hasn’t been careful enough.

Writers must therefore constantly ask: “what am I trying to say”

Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.

3. Clutter

Clutter is the laborious phase that has pushed out the short word that means the same thing.

Lost the “personal” physician and the “personal” friend; Physicians are physicians, friends are friends. The rest is clutter.

Clutter is the official language used by corporations to hide their mistakes

-When General Motors had a plant shutdown, that was a “volume-related production schedule adjustment.”

Assistance (help), numerous (many), facilitate (ease), individual (man or woman), remainder (rest), initial (first), implement (do), sufficient (enough), attempt (try)

Don’t explain your explaining, “I might add,” “it should be pointed out.” If you might add it, add it. If it should be pointed out, point it out.

Most first drafts can be cut by 50% without losing any information or the author’s voice.

4. Style

You have to strip down your writing before you can build it back up.

If you verbs are weak and your syntax is rickety, your sentences will fall apart (if the nails are weak, your house will collapse)

There is no style store; 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.

I urge people to write in the first person: to use “I” and “me” and “we” and “us.”

-“who am I to say what I think?” they ask. “Or what I feel?”

–“who are you not to say what you think?” I tell them. “there’s only one you. Nobody else thinks or feels in exactly the same way.”

-“but nobody cares about my opinions,” they say.

–“They’ll care if you tell them something interesting,“ I say, “and tell them in words that come naturally.”

If you aren’t allowed to use “I,” at least think “I” while you write, or write the first draft in the first person and then take the “I’s” out.

Americans are unwilling to go out on a limb. A generation ago our leaders told us where they stood and what they believed. Today they perform strenuous feats to escape their fate.

Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.

5. The Audience

You are writing to please yourself and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for.

If you lose the dullards back in the dust, you don’t want them anyway

In terms of craft, there’s no excuse for losing readers through sloppy workmanship

Perhaps the style won’t solidify for years as your style, your voice. Just as it takes time to find yourself as a person, it takes time to find yourself as a stylist, and even then your style will change as you grow older.

Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t be comfortable saying in conversation.

6. Words

You’ll never make your mark as a writer unless you develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive.

Notice the decisions that other writers make in their choice of words and be finicky about the ones you select from the vast supply. The race in writing is not to be swift but to the original.

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 figure out how they did it.

Get in the habit of using dictionaries & thesauruses

The thesaurus is to the writer what a rhyming dictionary is to the songwriter.

Also bear in mind, when you’re choosing words and stringing them together how they sound. Rhythm and alliteration are vital to every sentence.

7. Usage

“Myself” is the refuge of idiots taught early that “me” is a dirty word

Good usage, to me, consists of using words if they already exist –as they almost always do—to express myself clearly and simply to someone else.


8. Unity

The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.

All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem. It may be a problem of where to obtain the facts or how to organize the material. It may be a problem of approach or attitude, tone or style. Whatever it is, it has to confronted and solved.

Therefore ask yourself some basic questions before you start. For example: “In what capacity am I going to address the reader?” (Reporter? Provider of information? Average man or woman). What pronoun and tense am I going to use?” “What style?” (Impersonal reportorial? Personal but formal? Personal and casual?) “What attitude am I going to take toward the material?” (Involved? Detached? Judgmental? Ironic? Amused?) “How much do I want to cover?” What one point do I want to make?”

Most non-fiction writers have a definitiveness complex. They feel that they are under some obligation to make their article the last word. Nobody can write a book or article “about” something.

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. Not two thoughts, or five—just one.

Don’t become the prisoner of a preconceived plan. Writing is no respecter of blueprints.

9. 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, you article is dead.

Therefore your lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading.

It must provide hard details that tell the reader why the piece was written and why he ought to read it.

Ex. I’ve often wondered what goes into a hot dog. Now I know and I wish I didn’t

-In the beginning God created heaven and earth. (The Bible)

-Put this puzzle together and you will find milk, cheese and eggs, fish, beans and cereals, greens, fruits and root vegetables—foods that contain our essential daily needs.  (Joy of Cooking)

You should give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did your first.

A good last sentence—or last paragraph—is a joy in itself. It gives the reader a lift, and it lingers when the article is over.

The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right.

For the nonfiction writer, the simplest way of putting this into a rule is: when you’re ready to stop, stop. If you have presented the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the nearest exit.

10. Bits & Pieces

Verbs: use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb.

-Ex: “Joe saw him” is strong.” “He was seen by Joe” is weak.

Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum.

Adverbs: Most adverbs are unnecessary. You will clutter your sentence and annoy the reader if you choose a verb that has a specific meaning then add an adverb that carries the same meaning.

-Ex: Don’t tell us that the radio blared loudly; “blare” connotes loudness.

Adjectives: 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.

-Ex: Yellow daffodils and brownish dirt

-Good Ex: He looked at the gray sky and the black clouds and decided to sail back to the harbor.

Little Qualifiers: 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.” They dilute your style and persuasiveness.

-Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.


–The period: 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—perhaps express two dissimilar thoughts.

–The Exclamation Point: Don’t use it unless you must to achieve a certain effect.

Also resist using an exclamation point to notify the reader that you are making a joke or being ironic.

–The Semicolon: use it with discretion remembering that it will slow to a Victorian pace the early-21st-century momentum you’re striving for, and rely instead on the period and the dash.

–The Dash: The dash is used in two ways. One is to amplify or justify the second part of the sentence a thought you stated in the first part.

-Ex: “We decided to keep going—it was only 100 miles more and we could get there for dinner.”

The other involves two dashes, which set apart a parenthetical thought with a longer sentence.

Ex: “She told me to get in the car—she had been after me all summer to have a haircut—and we drove silently into town.”

Mood Changers: Learn to alert the reader as soon as possible to any change in mood from the pervious sentence. At least a dozen words will do this job for you: “but,” “yet,” “however,” “nevertheless,” “still,” “instead,” “thus,” “therefore,” meanwhile,” “now,” “later,” “today,” “subsequently.”

Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with “but.” If that’s what you learned, unlearn it—there’s no stronger word at the start.

Don’t start a sentence with “however” –it hangs there like a wet dishrag. And don’t end with “however” –by that time it has lost its howeverness.

Contractions: Your style will be warmer and truer to your personality if you use contractions like “I’ll” and “won’t” and “can’t” when they fit comfortably into what you’re writing.

That and Which: Always use “that” unless it makes your meaning ambiguous. In most situations, “that” is what you would naturally say and therefore what you should write.

-If your sentence needs a comma to achieve its precise meaning, it probably needs “which.” “Which serves a particular identifying function, different from “that.”

Ex: (A) “Take the shoes that are in the closet.” This means: take the shoes that are in the closet, not the ones under the bed. (B) “Take the shoes, which are in the closet.” Only one pair of shoes is under discussion; the “which” usage tells you where they are.

Concept Nouns: Nouns that express a concept are commonly used in bad writing instead of verbs that tell what somebody did.

Ex: The current campus hostility is a symptom of the change.

–Instead: It’s easy to notice the change—you can see how angry all the students are.

Creeping Nounism: This is a new American disease that strings two or three nouns together where one noun—or, better yet, one verb—will do.

Overstatement: “The living room looked as if an atomic bomb had gone off there,” writes the novice writer. Life has more than enough truly horrible funny situations. Let the humor sneak up so we hardly hear it coming. (Overstatement most times unnecessary).

Credibility: 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.

Dictation: Executives who are so busy that they can’t avoid dictating should at least find the time to edit what they have dictated…making sure what they finally write is a true reflection of who they are.

Writing is Not a Contest: I’ve often found that the hares who write for the paper are overtaken by the tortoises who move studiously toward the goal of mastering the craft.

Forget the competition and go at your own page. Your only contest is with yourself.

The Subconscious Mind: A writer is always working. Stay alert to the current around you. Much of what you see and hear will come back, having percolated for days or months or even years through your subconscious mind, just when your conscious mind, laboring to write, needs it.

The Quickest Fix: Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it.

Paragraphs: 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.

But don’t go berserk. A succession of tiny paragraphs is as annoying as a paragraph that’s too long.

Sexism: Don’t use constructions that suggest that only men can be settlers or farmers of cops or firefighters.

Where a certain occupation has both a masculine and a feminine form, look for a generic substitute. Actors and actresses can become performers.

To turn every “he” into a “he or she,” and every “his” into a “his or her,” would clog the language.

General nouns can replace specific nouns. (A) “Doctors often neglect their wives and children.” (B) “Doctors often neglect their families.”

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

You won’t write well until you understand that writing is an evolving process, not a finished product. Nobody expects you to get it right the first time, or even the second time.

Trust Your Material: The assumption is that fact and color are two separate ingredients. They’re not; color is organic to fact. Your job is to present the colorful fact.

People 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:

Those of us who are trying to write well about the world we live in, or to teach students to write well about the world they live in, are caught in a time warp, where literature by definition still consists of forms that were certified as “literary in the 19th century: novels and short stories and poems.

Journalism is writing that first appears in any periodic journal, whatever its constituency.

Historically, in America, good journalism becomes good literature.

Good writing is good writing, whatever form it takes and whatever we call it.

Writing About People (The interview): Get people talking. Learn to ask questions that will elicit answers about what is most interesting or vivid in their lives.

As soon as a writer steps in, everyone else’s experiences becomes secondhand.

You’ll find the solution if you look for the human element.

The interview itself is one of the most popular nonfiction forms, so you should master it early.

First decide what person you want to interview

To learn the craft of nonfiction you must push yourself out into the real world—your town or your city or your country—and pretend that you’re writing for a real publication.

If it helps, decide what publication you are hypothetically writing for. Choose as your subject someone whose job is so important, or so interesting, or so unusual that the average reader would want to read about that person.

The basic tools for an interview are paper and some well sharpened pencils. But keep your notebook out of sight until you need it.

Never go into an interview without doing whatever homework you can.

Rarely use tape recorder—be a writer. Write things down.

If a interviewee talks to fast, tell them to stop so you can write things down—learn to develop short hand and write faster.

Single out the sentences that are the most important or most colorful. Your job is to distill the essence.

Your ethical duty to the person interviewed is to present his position accurately. Don’t quote out of context or if the person weighs two sides, include both.

Your interview will be strong to the extent that you get the main points made without waste.

Don’t become a prisoner of your quotes—so lulled by how wonderful they sound that you don’t stop to analyze them. 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.

GOOD use of quote: “I usually like to go downtown once a week,” Mr. Smith said, “and have lunch with some of my old friends.”

Don’t strain synonyms for “he said.” Don’t make your man assert, aver and expostulate just to avoid repeating, “he said.”

When you get people talking, handle what they say as you would handle a valuable gift.

Writing About Places (The Travel Article):

Nobody turns so quickly into a bore as a traveler home from his travels. He enjoyed the trip so much that ht wants to tell us all about it—and “all” is what we don’t want to hear.

Don’t describe every detail about a place. We’ve heard it before. What was different about your trip?

Avoid the style trap, using words like “wondrous,” fabled,” “quaint.”

If a phrase comes to you easily, look at it with deep suspicion; it’s probably one of the countless clichés that have woven their way so tightly into the fabric of travel writing that you have to make a special effort not to use them.

Style: eliminate every such fact that is a known attribute: don’t tell us that the sea had waves and the sand was white. Find details that are significant.

When you write about a place, try to draw the best out of it. But if the process should work in reverse, let it draw the best out of you.

Never be afraid to write about a place that you think has had every last word written about it. It’s not your place until you write about it.

If you are writing about places that are sacred or meaningful, leave the waxing to someone else.

Writing About Yourself (The Memoir):

Write in personal detail what is closest to you.

If you consciously write for a teacher or for an editor, you’ll end up not writing for anybody.

Excessive writing about yourself can be hazardous to the healthy of the writer and the reader. A thin line separates ego from egotism.

Memoir assumes the life and ignores most of it.

Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.

Memoir is one way to make sense of the cultural differences that can be a painful fact of daily life in America today.

Science and Technology:

Nowhere else must you work so hard to write sentences that form a linear sequence. This is no place for fanciful leaps or implied truths. Facts and deduction are the ruling family.

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.

Imagine science writing as an upside-down pyramid. Start at the bottom with the one fact a reader must know before he can learn any more. The second sentence broadens what was stated first, making the pyramid wider, and the third sentence broadens the second, so that you can gradually move beyond fact into significance and speculation—how a new discovery alters what was known, what new avenues of research it might open, where the research might be applied.

Another way to help your readers understand unfamiliar facts is to relate them to sights they are familiar with. Reduce abstract principle to an image they can visualize.

Another way of making science accessible is to write like a person and not like a scientist. It’s the same old question of being yourself. Just because you’re dealing with a scholarly discipline that’s usually reported in a style of dry pedantry is no reason why you should write in good fresh English.

Business Writing:

My four articles of faith: clarity, simplicity, brevity and humanity. I explained about using active verbs and avoiding “concept nouns.” I told them not to use the special vocabulary of education as a crutch; almost any subject can be made accessible in good English.

Still, plain talk will not be easily achieved in corporate America. Too much vanity is on the line. 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: “I” is the most interesting element in any story.


The best sportswriters know this. They avoid exhausted synonyms and strive for freshness elsewhere in their sentences.

Never be afraid to repeat the player’s name and to keep the details simple. A set or an inning doesn’t have to be recycled into a stanza or a frame to avoid redundancy. The cure is worse than the ailment.

If a pitcher wins his 20th game, if a golfer shoots a 61, if a runner runs the mile in 3.48, please mention it, But don’t get carried away.  –ask how “wow” are the statistics

The ego of the modern athlete has in turn rubbed off on the modern sportswriter. I’m struck by how many sportswriters now think they are the story, their thoughts more interesting than the game they were sent to cover.

Half the sportswriters think they are Guy de Maupassant, masters of the exquisitely delayed lead. The rest think they are Sigmund Freud, privy to the athlete’s psychic needs and wounded sensibilities. Some also practice orthopedics and arthroscopic surgery on the side, quicker than the teach physician to assess what the magnetic resonance imaging scan revealed or didn’t reveal about the pitcher’s torn or perhaps not torn rotator cuff. “His condition is day-to-day,” they conclude. Whose condition isn’t?

If you want to write about sports, remember that the men and women you’re writing about are doing something immensely difficult, and they have their pride. You, too, are doing the job that has its codes of honor. One of them is that you are not the story.

Red Smith had no patience with self-important sportswriting. He said it was always helpful to remember that baseball is a game that little boys play.

What they want to know when they open their newspaper is how the players played and how the game came out. Please tell us.

One new role for the sportswriter is to let us know what it feels like to actually perform a sport: to be a marathon runner or a soccer goalie, a skier or a golfer or a gymnast.

Values to look for when you write about sport: people and places, time and transition.

Writing About the Arts (Critics and Columnists):

Criticism is the stage on which journalists do their fanciest strutting. It’s also where reputation for wit are born.

A distinction should be made between a “critic” and a “reviewer.” Reviewers write for a newspaper or a popular magazine, and what they cover is primarily an industry—the output of, for instance, the television industry, the motion-picture industry and, increasingly, the publishing industry in its flood of cookbooks, health books, how-to books, etc.

As a reviewer your job is more to report than to make an aesthetic judgment. What is the new TV series about? Is the movie too dirty for kids?

Think what you would want to know if you had to spend the money for the movie, the baby-sitter and the long-promised dinner at a good restaurant.

Critics should like—or, better still, love—the medium they are reviewing. If you think movies are dumb, don’t write about them.

It’s not necessary for the critic to like every film; criticism is only one person’s opinion. But he should go to every movie wanting to like it.

Another rule is: 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. One sentence will do the trick.

A third principle is to use specific detail.

Don’t say that Tom Wolfe’s style is gaudy and unusual. Quote a few of his gaudy and unusual sentences and let the readers see how quirky they are. Don’t just tell us that a set is “striking.” Describe its various levels, how it is ingeniously lit, etc.

A final caution is to avoid the ecstatic adjectives that occupy such disproportionate space in every critic’s quiver—words like “enthralling” and “luminous.”

Good criticism needs a lean and vivid style to express what you observed and what you think.

If you want to be a critic, steep yourself in the literature of the medium you hope to make your specialty.

How should a good piece of criticism start? You must make an immediate effort to orient your readers to the special world they are about to enter. Even if they are broadly educated men and women they need to be told or reminded of certain facts. You can’t just throw them in the water and expect them to swim easily. The water needs to be warmed up.

Literary criticism that doesn’t stir a few combative juices is hardly worth writing, and there are few spectator sports as enjoyable as a good academic brawl.


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.

One strong editorial cartoon is worth a hundred solemn editorials

One Catch-22 or Dr. Strangelove is more powerful than all the books and movies that try to show war “as it is.”

The writer must find some comic device—satire, parody, irony, lampoon, nonsense—that he can use to disguise his serious point.

Control is vital to humor. Don’t use comical names like Throttlebottom. Don’t make the same kind of joke two or three times—readers will enjoy themselves more if oyu make it only once. Trust the sophistication of readers who do know what you’re doing, and don’t worry about the rest.

If I criticize somebody,” he said [Mort Sahl], “it’s because I have higher hopes for the world, something good to replace the bad. I’m not saying what the Beat Genearation says, ‘Go away because I’m not involved.’ I’m here and I’m involved.”

“I’m here and I’m involved”: make that your creed if you want to write serious humor. Humorists operate on a deeper current than most people suspect. They must be willing to go against the grain, to say what they populace and the President may not want to hear.

Humor is not a separate organism that can survive on its own frail metabolism. It’s a special angle of vision granted to certain writers who already write good English.

They aren’t writing about life that’s essentially ludicrous; they are writing about life that’s essentially serious, but their eye falls on areas where serious hopes are mocked by some ironic turn of fate.

Master the craft of writing good “straight” English; humorists from Mark Twain to Russell Baker are, first of all, superb writers. Don’t search for the outlandish and scorn what seems too ordinary.

You will touch more chords by finding what’s funning in what you know to be true.

Don’t strain for laughs; humor is built on surprise, and you can surprise the reader only so often.

All humor must be about something—it must touch concretely on life.

But there’s no law that says humor has to make a point. Pure nonsense is a joy forever. I love to see a writer flying high, just for the hell of it.

Strive for truth and hope to add humor along the way.

Part IV: Attitudes

The sound of your voice:

My commodity as a writer, whatever I’m writing about, is me. And your commodity is you. Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page, a voice that’s enjoyable not only in its musical line but in its avoidance of sounds that would cheapen its tone: breeziness and condescension and clichés.

Effortless style is achieved by strenuous effort and constant refining. The nails of grammar and syntax are in place and the English is as good as the writer can make it.

Readers will stop reading if they think you are talking down to them. Nobody wants to be patronized.

Write with respect for the English language at its best—and for readers at their best. If you’re smitten by the urge to try the breezy style, read what you’ve written aloud and see if you like the sound of your voice.

For writers and other creative artists, knowing what not to do is a major component of taste.

Clichés are one of the things you should keep listening for when you rewrite and read your successive drafts aloud. They are the enemy of taste.

Does this mean taste can be learned? Yes and no. Perfect taste, like perfect pitch, is a gift from God. But a certain amount can be acquired. The trick is to study writers who have it.

Never hesitate to imitate another writer. Imitation is part of the creative process for anyone learning an art or craft.

Find the best writers in the fields that interest you and read their work aloud. Ger their voice and their taste into your ear—their attitudes 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.

Writing that will endure tends to consist of words that are short and strong; words that sedate are words of three, four and five syllables.

Enjoyment, Fear and Confidence:

I’ve made the sense of enjoyment my credo as writer and editor. 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 a few other people will find it funny, and that seems to be a good day’s work.

The reader has to feel that the writer is feeling good.

Writers have to jump-start themselves at the moment of performance, no less than actors and dancers and painters and musicians.

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 conclusion is that I’ll get another shot at those dismal sentences tomorrow and the next day and the day after. With each rewrite I try to force my personality onto the material.

One way to generate confidence is to write about subjects that interest you and that you care about.

You can be your own party line.

Living is the trick. Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That’s almost the whole point of become a writer. I’ve used writing to give myself an interesting life and continuing education. If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write. Learning is tonic.

I had another credential: sincerity. It was obvious to those men that I really wanted to know how they did their work. Remember this when you enter new territory and need a shot of confidence. Your best credential is yourself.

I’ve never accepted an assignment I didn’t think I was suited for, and I’m quick to tell editors that they should look for someone else.

I need to feel a certain rapport with the person I’ll be writing about.

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 the subject.

The moral for nonfiction writers is: think broadly about your assignment. Don’t assume an article for Audubon has to be strictly about nature, or an article for Car & Driver strictly about cars.

Push the boundaries of your subject and see where it takes you. Bring some part of your own life to it; it’s not your version of the story until you write it.

Trust your common sense to figure out what you need to know, and don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions. If the expert thinks you’re dumb, that’s his problem.

I’m struck by how often as a writer I say to myself, “That’s interesting.” If you find yourself saying it, pay attention and follow your nose. Trust your curiosity to connect with the curiosity of the readers.

The Tyranny of the Final Product:

Less glamorous grains made along the way—learning, wisdom, growth, confidence, dealing with failure—aren’t given the same respect because they can’t be given a grade.

If the process is solid, the product will take care of itself, and sales are likely to follow.

I’ve found that the most untaught and underestimated skill in nonfiction writing is how to organize a long article: how to put the jigsaw puzzle together.

The writer, his eye on the finish line, never gave enough thought to how to run the race.

Moral: any time you can tell a story in the form of a quest or a pilgrimage you’ll be ahead of the game. Readers bearing their own associations will do some of your work for you.

Intention is what we wish to accomplish with our writing. Call it the writer’s soul.

We can write to affirm and to celebrate, or we can write to debunk and to destroy; the choice is ours.

Writing is related to character. If your values are sound, your writing will be sound. It all begins with intention.

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.

Readers can process only one idea at a time, and they do it in a linear sequence.

Never be afraid to break a long sentence into two short ones, or even three.

Don’t give readers of a magazine piece more information than they require; if you want to tell more, write a book or write for a scholarly journal.

“What do your readers want to know next?” Ask yourself that question after every sentence.

No writing decision is too small to be worth a large expenditure of time. [author spent 1 hour, on 1 sentence]

Always ask, “What is the piece really about.

Readers should always feel that you know more about your subject than you’ve put in writing.

Often the story will tell you when it wants to stop.

When you get such a message from your material—when your story tells you it’s over, regardless of what subsequently happened—look for the door.

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.

Writing Family History and Memoir:

One of the saddest sentences I know is “I wish I had asked my mother about that.” Or my father. Or my grandmother. Or my grandfather.

Writers are the custodians of memory.

There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published. Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is to come to terms with your life narrative. Another is to work through some of life’s hardest knocks—loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace.

Remember this when you write your own family history. Don’t try to be a “writer.”

Be yourself and your readers will follow you anywhere. Try to commit an act of writing and your readers will jump overboard to get away. Your product is you.

Should I write from the point of view of the child I once was, or of the adult I am now? The strongest memoirs, I think, are those that preserve the unity of a remembered time and place.

But if you prefer the other route—to write about your younger years from the wiser perspective of your older years—that memoir will have its own integrity.

But these are two different kinds of writing. Choose one.

When you write your family history, be a recording angel and record everything your descendants might want to know.

Your first job is to get your story down as you remember it—now.

Don’t look over your shoulder to see what relatives are perched there. Say what you want to say, freely and honestly, and finish the job. Then take up the privacy issue.

Finally, it’s your story—you’re the one who has done all the work. If your sister has a problem with your memoir she can write her own memoir, and it will be just as valid as yours; nobody has a monopoly on the shared past.

If you make an honest transaction with your own humanity and with the humanity of the people who crossed your life, no matter how much pain they caused you or you caused them, readers will connect with your journey.

One big decision would be to write about only one branch of the family. Families are complex organisms, especially if you trace them back several generations. Decide to write about your mother’s side of the family or your father’s side, but not both. Return to the other one later and make it a separate project.

Remember that you are the protagonist in your memoir—the tour guide. You must find a narrative trajectory for the story you want to tell and never relinquish control. This means leaving out of your memoir many people who don’t need to be there. Like siblings.

It’s your story. You only need to interview family members who have a unique insight into a family situation, or an anecdote that unlocks a puzzle you were unable to solve.

Think small. Don’t rummage around in your past—or your family’s past—to find episodes that you think are “important” enough to be worthy of including in your memoir. Look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you still remember them it’s because they contain a universal truth that your readers will recognize from their own life.

–Go to your desk Monday morning and write about some event that’s still vivid in your memory. It doesn’t have to be long—three pages, five pages—but it should have a beginning and an end. Put that episode in a folder and get on with your life.

–On Tuesday morning, do the same thing. Tuesday’s episode doesn’t have to be related to Monday’s episode. Take whatever memory comes calling; your subconscious mind, having been put to work, will start delivering your past.

–Keep this work up for two months, or three months, or six months. Don’t be impatient to start writing your “memoir”—the one you had in mind before you began.

–Then, one day, take all your entries out of the folder and spread them on the floor. (The floor is often a writer’s best friend.) Read them through and see what they tell you and what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoirs is about—and what it’s not about.

Write as Well as You Can

When he talked about it [the author’s father’s business] I never felt that he regarded at a venture for making money; it was an art, to be practiced with imagination and only the best materials. He had a passion for quality and had no patience with second-rate; he never went into a story looking for a bargain. He charged more for his product because he made it with the best ingredients, and his company prospered.

I tell aspiring writers that they should think of themselves as part entertainer. To succeed you must make your piece jump out of a newspaper of magazine by being more diverting than everyone else’s piece. You must find some way to elevate your act of writing into an entertainment. Usually this means giving the readers an enjoyable surprise.

When we say we like the style of certain writers, what we mean is that we like their personality as they express it on paper.

We know that verbs have more vigor than nouns, that active verbs are better than passive verbs, that short words and sentences are easier to read than long ones, that concrete details are easier to process than vague abstractions.

Where then is the edge? 99% of the answer lies in the hard work of mastering the tools discussed in this book.

–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 are not as high. Too many writers are browbeaten into settling for less than their best.

My crankiness has brought me more work than it has driven away. Editors with an unusual assignment often thought of me because they knew I would do it with unusual care.

Remember the craft of nonfiction writing involves more than writing. It also means being reliable. Editors will properly drop a writer they can’t count on.

–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.

A good editor likes nothing better than a piece of copy he hardly has to touch. A bad editor has a compulsion to tinker, proving with busywork that he hasn’t forgotten the minutiae of grammar and usage.

If you allow your distinctiveness to be edited out, you will lose one of your main virtues. You will also lose your virtue.

An editor’s cardinal sin: tampering with a writer’s opinion.

What you write about is yours and nobody else’s. Take your talent as far as you can and guard it with your life.

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.