On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Rating:
8
/10

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. Good writing is the result of clear thinking - if your thinking is sloppy it will translate into your writing.
  2. Brevity is the key to great writing - remove clutter at all costs.
  3. Your job as a writer is to continually entice the reader to keep reading - your most important line is your first one.

🎨 Impressions

As I've started my foray into writing online, I've become increasingly curious about the craft of writing. This book has practical recommendations and tactical advice on how to become a better writer.

I believe this is a book I'll continually come back to in search of honing my craft over time, but overall I realized that less is more and brevity should be my true north.

How I Discovered It

Continually referenced as one of "the best books on writing" - but I'm pretty sure I found it through Nat Eliason's book notes.

Who Should Read It?

Anyone who is looking to become a better non-fiction writer. This could apply to writing for an audience or merely improving your business emails, presentations, etc.

Anyone who does any amount of writing should read this book.

☘️ How the Book Changed Me

How my life / behavior / thoughts / ideas have changed as a result of reading the book.

  • Focus on Brevity - Readers have short attention spans, I realized that I need to get to the point and quick to entice readers to keep reading.
  • Embrace the Rewrite - I really dislike editing, especially when it's my own writing. I feel stupid and it's not fun for me. Through this book I realized that rewriting is key and I need to embrace it.
  • Reading about writing is great, though the only way to get better is through practice. Keep writing as much as possible, better results are inevitable and your style will emerge.

✍️ My Top 3 Quotes

  • "Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost."
  • "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 that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard."
  • "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. So decide what single point you want to leave in the reader’s mind. It will not only give you a better idea of what route you should follow and what destination you hope to reach; it will affect your decision about tone and attitude."

📒 Summary, Highlights, + Notes

My purpose is to make myself and my experience available. If readers connect with my book it’s because they don’t think they’re hearing from an English professor. They’re hearing from a working writer.

Location: 81

The new age, for all its electronic wizardry, is still writing-based.

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

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I often find myself reading with interest about a topic I never thought would interest me—some scientific quest, perhaps. What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field. How was he drawn into it? What emotional baggage did he bring along? How did it change his life? It’s not necessary to want to spend a year alone at Walden Pond to become involved with a writer who did.

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the most important qualities that this book will go in search of: humanity and warmth. Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next,

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Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.

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How can the rest of us achieve such enviable freedom from clutter? The answer is to clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.

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Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they don’t know. Then they must look at what they have written and ask: have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time? If it’s not, some fuzz has worked its way into the machinery. The clear writer is someone clearheaded enough to see this stuff for what it is: fuzz.

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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 that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.

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Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose.

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Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine 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.

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This is the problem of writers who set out deliberately to garnish their prose. You lose whatever it is that makes you unique. The reader will notice if you are putting on airs. Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself. No rule, however, is harder to follow. It requires writers to do two things that by their metabolism are impossible. They must relax, and they must have confidence.

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Writers are obviously at their most natural when they write in the first person. Writing is an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper, and it will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity. Therefore I urge people to write in the first person: to use “I” and “me” and “we” and “us.”

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Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.

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Soon after you confront the matter of preserving your identity, another question will occur to you: “Who am I writing for?” It’s a fundamental question, and it has a fundamental answer: You are writing for yourself.

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Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. If you’re not a person who says “indeed” or “moreover,” or who calls someone an individual (“he’s a fine individual”), please don’t write it.

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If you have any doubt of what a word means, look it up. Learn its etymology and notice what curious branches its original root has put forth. See if it has any meanings you didn’t know it had. Master the small gradations between words that seem to be synonyms.

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The Thesaurus is to the writer what a rhyming dictionary is to the songwriter—a reminder of all the choices—and you should use it with gratitude.

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If all your sentences move at the same plodding gait, which even you recognize as deadly but don’t know how to cure, read them aloud. (I write entirely by ear and read everything aloud before letting it go out into the world.) You’ll begin to hear where the trouble lies.

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

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You learn to write by writing. It’s a truism, but what makes it a truism is that it’s true. The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.

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Unity is the anchor of good writing. So, first, get your unities straight. Unity not only keeps the reader from straggling off in all directions; it satisfies your readers’ subconscious need for order and reassures them that all is well at the helm. Therefore choose from among the many variables and stick to your choice.

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One choice is unity of pronoun. Are you going to write in the first person, as a participant, or in the third person, as an observer?

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Unity of tense is another choice. Most people write mainly in the past tense (“I went up to Boston the other day”), but some people write agreeably in the present (“I’m sitting in the dining car of the Yankee Limited and we’re pulling into Boston”). What is not agreeable is to switch back and forth.

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you must choose the tense in which you are principally going to address the reader, no matter how many glances you may take backward or forward along the way.

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Another choice is unity of mood.

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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?”

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Every writing project must be reduced before you start to write. Therefore think small. Decide what corner of your subject you’re going to bite off, and be content to cover it well and stop.

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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. So decide what single point you want to leave in the reader’s mind. It will not only give you a better idea of what route you should follow and what destination you hope to reach; it will affect your decision about tone and attitude.

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The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead.

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I urge you not to count on the reader to stick around. Readers want to know—very soon—what’s in it for them. Therefore your lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading.

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salvation often lies not in the writer’s style but in some odd fact he or she was able to discover.

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One moral of this story is that you should always collect more material than you will use. Every article is strong in proportion to the surplus of details from which you can choose the few that will serve you best—if you don’t go on gathering facts forever. At some point you must stop researching and start writing.

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Another approach is to just tell a story. It’s such a simple solution, so obvious and unsophisticated, that we often forget that it’s available to us. But narrative is the oldest and most compelling method of holding someone’s attention; everybody wants to be told a story.

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

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The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right. They didn’t expect the article to end so soon, or so abruptly, or to say what it said. But they know it when they see it.

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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 all the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the nearest exit.

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Ideally they should encapsulate the idea of the piece and conclude with a sentence that jolts us with its fitness or unexpectedness.

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Something I often do in my writing is to bring the story full circle—to strike at the end an echo of a note that was sounded at the beginning. It gratifies my sense of symmetry, and it also pleases the reader, completing with its resonance the journey we set out on together.

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But what usually works best is a quotation. Go back through your notes to find some remark that has a sense of finality, or that’s funny, or that adds an unexpected closing detail.

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

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

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Most adverbs are unnecessary.

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Most adjectives are also unnecessary.

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Again, the rule is simple: make your adjectives do work that needs to be done.

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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” and dozens more. They dilute your style and your persuasiveness.

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The large point is one of authority. Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of the reader’s trust. Readers want a writer who believes in himself and in what he is saying. Don’t diminish that belief. Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.

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

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Humor is best achieved by understatement, and there’s nothing subtle about an exclamation point.

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The Dash. Somehow this invaluable tool is widely regarded as not quite proper—a bumpkin at the genteel dinner table of good English. But it has full membership and will get you out of many tight corners.

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

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

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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.

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If you need relief from too many sentences beginning with “but,” switch to “however.”

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Don’t start a sentence with “however”—it hangs there like a wet dishrag. And don’t end with “however”—by

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“Yet” does almost the same job as “but,” though its meaning is closer to “nevertheless.”

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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.

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Always use “that” unless it makes your meaning ambiguous.

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

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many writers are paralyzed by the thought that they are competing with everybody else who is trying to write and presumably doing it better.

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

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Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it. Unfortunately, this solution is usually the last one that occurs to writers in a jam.

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When you find yourself at such an impasse, look at the troublesome element and ask, “Do I need it at all?” Probably you don’t.

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Keep your paragraphs short.

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The best solutions simply eliminate “he” and its connotations of male ownership by using other pronouns or by altering some other component of the sentence. “We” is a handy replacement for “he.” “Our” and “the” can often replace “his.”

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

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Keep putting yourself in the reader’s place. Is there something he should have been told early in the sentence that you put near the end? Does he know when he starts sentence B that you’ve made a shift—of subject, tense, tone, emphasis—from sentence A?

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Try not to use words like “surprisingly,” “predictably” and “of course,” which put a value on a fact before the reader encounters the fact. Trust your material.

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World War II sent seven million Americans overseas and opened their eyes to reality: to new places and issues and events. After the war that trend was reinforced by the advent of television. People who saw reality every evening in their living room lost patience with the slower rhythms and glancing allusions of the novelist. Overnight, America became a fact-minded nation. After 1946 the Book-of-the-Month Club’s members predominantly demanded—and therefore received—nonfiction.

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Nonfiction became the new American literature.

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Get people talking. Learn to ask questions that will elicit answers about what is most interesting or vivid in their lives.

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The best way to practice is to go out and interview people. The interview itself is one of the most popular nonfiction forms, so you should master it early. How should you start? First, decide what person you want to interview.

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Choose, in short, someone who touches some corner of the reader’s life.

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But keep your notebook out of sight until you need it. There’s nothing less likely to relax a person than the arrival of a stranger with a stenographer’s pad. Both of you need time to get to know each other. Take a while just to chat, gauging what sort of person you’re dealing with, getting him or her to trust you.

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Never go into an interview without doing whatever homework you can. If you are interviewing a town official, know his or her voting record.

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Make a list of likely questions—it will save you the vast embarrassment of going dry in mid-interview.

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Quotes are livelier when you break them up, making periodic appearances in your role as guide. You are still the writer—don’t relinquish control. But make your appearances useful;

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Nobody turns so quickly into a bore as a traveler home from his travels. He enjoyed his trip so much that he wants to tell us all about it—and “all” is what we don’t want to hear. We only want to hear some. What made his trip different from everybody else’s? What can he tell us that we don’t already know?

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It’s natural for all of us when we have gone to a certain place to feel that we are the first people who ever went there or thought such sensitive thoughts about it.

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How can you overcome such fearful odds and write well about a place? My advice can be reduced to two principles—one of style, the other of substance.

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First, choose your words with unusual care. 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.

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As for substance, be intensely selective.

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Find details that are significant. They may be important to your narrative; they may be unusual, or colorful, or comic, or entertaining. But make sure they do useful work.

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Your main task as a travel writer is to find the central idea of the place you’re dealing with.

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what brings a place alive is human activity: people doing the things that give a locale its character.

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

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on the question of who you’re writing for, don’t be eager to please. If you consciously write for a teacher or for an editor, you’ll end up not writing for anybody. If you write for yourself, you’ll reach the people you want to write for.

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Your memory is almost always good for material when your other wells go dry.

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Make sure every component in your memoir is doing useful work. Write about yourself, by all means, with confidence and with pleasure. But see that all the details—people, places, events, anecdotes, ideas, emotions—are moving your story steadily along.

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Think narrow, then, when you try the form. Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.

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One secret of the art is detail. Any kind of detail will work—a sound or a smell or a song title—as long as it played a shaping role in the portion of your life you have chosen to distill. Consider sound.

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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.

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Describing how a process works is valuable for two reasons. It forces you to make sure you know how it works. Then it forces you to take the reader through the same sequence of ideas and deductions that made the process clear to you.

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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.

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Use your own experience to connect the reader to some mechanism that also touches his life.

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

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my four articles of faith: clarity, simplicity, brevity and humanity.

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Any organization that won’t take the trouble to be both clear and personal in its writing will lose friends, customers and money.

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the customer isn’t going to keep translating. Soon he’s going to look for another company. He thinks, “If these guys are so smart, why can’t they tell me what they do? Maybe they’re not so smart.”

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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 that what you write is often the only chance you’ll get to present yourself to someone whose business or money or good will you need. If what you write is ornate, or pompous, or fuzzy, that’s how you’ll be perceived. The reader has no other choice.

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I told the corporate writers they had to find the people behind the fine achievements being described.

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The way to warm up any institution is to locate the missing “I.” Remember: “I” is the most interesting element in any story.

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If you work for an institution, whatever your job, whatever your level, be yourself when you write. You will stand out as a real person among the robots,

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In mere detail they have enough information to keep any fan happy. But what makes them special is their humanity.

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Therefore I suggest several principles for the writer of humor. 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 funny in what you know to be true. Finally, don’t strain for laughs; humor is built on surprise, and you can surprise the reader only so often.

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our class began by striving first for humor and hoping to wing a few truths along the way. We ended by striving for truth and hoping to add humor along the way. Ultimately we realized that the two are intertwined.

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That’s the effortless style at its best: a methodical act of composition that disarms us with its generated warmth. The writer sounds confident; he’s not trying to ingratiate himself with the reader.

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Nobody ever stopped reading E. B. White or V. S. Pritchett because the writing was too good. But readers will stop reading you if they think you are talking down to them. Nobody wants to be patronized.

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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.

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Taste is an invisible current that runs through writing, and you should be aware of it.

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

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Clichés are the enemy of taste.

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Taste chooses words that have surprise, strength and precision.

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

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Find the best writers in the fields that interest you and read their work aloud.

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I’ve made that sense of enjoyment my credo as a writer and an editor. Writing is such lonely work that I try to keep myself cheered up.

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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 me to be a good day’s work. It doesn’t bother me that a certain number of readers will not be amused; I know that a fair chunk of the population has no sense of humor—no idea that there are people in the world trying to entertain them.

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“Dying is no big deal. Living is the trick.”

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Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested.

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I’ve used writing to give myself an interesting life and a continuing education. If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write. Learning is a tonic.

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Remember this when you enter new territory and need a shot of confidence. Your best credential is yourself.

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If you want your writing to convey enjoyment, write about people you respect.

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

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Your test should be: is the expert’s first answer sufficient? Usually it’s not.

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By far the biggest problem was compression: how to distill a coherent narrative from a huge and tangled mass of experiences and feelings and memories.

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Two final words occur to me. One is quest, the other is intention.

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The quest is one of the oldest themes in storytelling, an act of faith we never get tired of hearing about.

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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.

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

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It all begins with intention. Figure out what you want to do and how you want to do it, and work your way with humanity and integrity to the completed article.

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The hardest decision about any article is how to begin it. The lead must grab the reader with a provocative idea and continue with each paragraph to hold him or her in a tight grip, gradually adding information. The point of the information is to get readers so interested that they will stick around for the whole trip.

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Much of the trouble that writers get into comes from trying to make one sentence do too much work. Never be afraid to break a long sentence into two short ones, or even three.

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The first sentence of that paragraph grows out of the last sentence of the previous paragraph; the reader is given no chance to squirm away. After that the paragraph has one purpose: it acknowledges what the reader already knows—or half knows—about Timbuktu. It thereby welcomes him as a fellow traveler, someone who brings the same emotions to the trip as the writer himself. It also adds a certain kind of information—not hard facts, but enjoyable lore.

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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.

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Now, what do your readers want to know next? Ask yourself that question after every sentence.

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Be on the watch for funny or self-serving quotes and use them with gratitude.

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Banality is the enemy of good writing; the challenge is to not write like everybody else.

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At such moments I ask myself one very helpful question: “What is the piece really about?” (Not just “What is the piece about?”)

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

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The sentence about the chieftain’s tent, referring back to a phrase in the brochure, is another tiny joke. These “snappers” at the end of a paragraph propel readers into the next paragraph and keep them in a good mood.

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A crucial decision about a piece of writing is where to end it. Often the story will tell you where it wants to stop.

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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.

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

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

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Your product is you. The crucial transaction in memoir and personal history is the transaction between you and your remembered experiences and emotions.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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My final reducing advice can be summed up in two words: 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.

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They don’t identify with my baseball game; they identify with the idea of the game—a universal idea. Remember this when you write your memoir and worry that your story isn’t big enough to interest anyone else. The small stories that still stick in your memory have a resonance of their own. Trust them.

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Remember: Your biggest stories will often have less to do with their subject than with their significance—not what you did in a certain situation, but how that situation affected you and shaped the person you became.

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Go to your desk on 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.

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Keep this up for two months, or three months, or six months.

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Then, one day, take all your entries out of their 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 memoir is about—and what it’s not about.

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You must find some way to elevate your act of writing into an entertainment. Usually this means giving the reader an enjoyable surprise.

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Given a choice between two traveling companions—and a writer is someone who asks us to travel with him—we usually choose the one who we think will make an effort to brighten the trip.

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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.

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I’ve always felt that my “style”—the careful projection onto paper of who I think I am—is my main marketable asset, the one possession that might set me apart from other writers.

Location: 4340