My favorite writer on writing died. William Zinsser, author of “On Writing Well” recently passed away. He was 92 years old.
Was his book any good? I don’t know. It sold 1.5 million copies. His students and readers are practically every non-fiction writer I look up to.
Stephen Dubner, who wrote Freakonomics, first recommended him to me. I’ve always hated books like Strunk & White’s Elements of Style but I was looking for a good book on writing nonfiction and Stephen recommended Zinsser’s book.
Other great books that have been recommended to me by authors: “On Writing” by Stephen King, Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, and “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott although both Tucker Max and Claudia Azula Altucher violently disagree with me on the last one. I happen to love the book and stand by it.
What did Zinsser say? Why did everyone love and buy and emulate the principles in his book. You decide. Here is some of his top advice:
GET RID OF CLUTTER
“Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Re-examine 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.”
WRITE FOR YOURSELF, NOT OTHERS
“You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for.”
STUDY THE GREATS – BUT ALSO YOUR CONTEMPORARIES
“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.”
THINK OF WRITING AS A PROCESS, NOT A PRODUCT
Many authors “know what they want to write, but instead of writing they say ‘Well, my main problem is figuring out how to find an agent and get it published. I tell them, ‘The main problem is that you need to write the damn thing.'”
READ EVERYTHING YOU WRITE OUT LOUD FOR RHYTHM AND SOUND
“Good writers of prose must be part poet, always listening to what they write.”
HAVE CONFIDENCE IN YOURSELF AS A WRITER
“I go around giving my students permission to be who they are, and there aren’t enough people doing that,” he said. “You learn to write by believing in who you are.”
Every day I try to do every one of those suggestions. Like anything, sometimes it works for me and sometimes it doesn’t.
Even though I followed these rules for years I still lost money on almost every book I wrote. You can write beautifully and still never get published…never get paid. But I finally figured out the “rules” for profitably self publishing and I write about them here (it’s one of the most popular blog posts I’ve ever written).