Friday, September 12, 2008

Book: "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser

I believe good writing can be trained. Some writers are gifted – they seamlessly create beautiful prose, possess rich vocabulary and have an admirable style– but majority of us need extra polishing. I still kept some of my essays from high school and it is fascinating – after I finished cringing at how bad-ass the essays were back then - to compare how much the writing has evolves since then. The vocabulary grows, less grammatical mistakes are made, and the writing style becomes more varied. The writing gets better, but of course, still far from perfect.

Then this book comes along.


William Zinsser wrote the classic ‘On Writing Well’, a book that after more than 30 years had stood against the test of time. One may think that a book on writing will be a bore, but it was a surprise to discover what an enjoyable and assuring reading this book provides. “Writing is hard work…… Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in a moment of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard”. What a gem. Anyone who tells me that my shortcoming is not entirely my fault is a keeper.

The enduring success of this book is due to its casual and warm approach. Instead of being the typical textbook on grammar and writing rules, Zinsser ‘speaks personally’ to his audience. He did not sound like your strict language teacher in school nor was he mechanical in his eloquence. One of my favorite chapters is ‘Clutter’ which provides tips on weeding superfluous, redundant or long words that lengthen one’s essay, but serve no purpose. He asks us to consider “At the present time we are experiencing precipitation” – pompous - versus the succinct “It is raining”. When was the last you read an insurance or bank statement only to lost your train of thoughts after only three sentences? Sometimes all we need is a clear, short sentence.

Another favorite is the chapter ‘Bits and Pieces’. It is like that tin of assorted biscuits – you got several scrumptious varieties in one container. In this chapter, Zinsser highlighted several tips or reminders on how to use punctuations, ‘that’ vs ‘which’, paragraphing, adverbs, adjectives and many others. It is a useful reference written wittily.

I only bought this book last month – but it is already creased, folded and well-used. That, to me, is a testament of a good book, one that endures countless rereading, flipping and referencing.