Book review: On Writing Well

cover of "on writing well" and author William Zinsser

If I were a better writer, I’d be able to do justice to On Writing Well, William Zinsser’s own brilliant writing on writing.

Or maybe I should say, if I were the writer I dreamed of being back when I first dreamed of being a writer, I could write the review I had somewhere in the back of my head: that perfect review that made the book come alive, that explained it perfectly, in words that danced around on the page in fancy clothes, as I’d always imagined my words doing when I finally got my word-choreographer chops.

Here’s what Zinsser might say to that: Why don’t you just tell them what the book is about, and what you got out of it? (Only, you know, he’d do it better. Because he’s WILLIAM ZINSSER.)

Fine. Here’s what I got out of it:

1. Writing is rewriting. You knew that, right? Even though most of us who write mostly on our blogs mostly don’t. Like me, if you couldn’t tell. Well, it is. Writing is rewriting. And some of what may be most useful to you about this book are the before/after examples. This man is ruthless with his darlings. Slaughtered, incinerated bodies everywhere.

2. Most good writing is good, simple writing. Very easy to get tangled up in your fancy pants, fancypants. Again, the book is rife with examples of good, simple writing. Which, to bring us neatly back to Point the First, is the result of plenty o’ rewriting.

3. The writing that looks the easiest is often the hardest to pull off. Dialogue that sounds realistic. Humor that’s actually humorous. Anything short.

4. Any subject can be interesting if it’s written about well. Unfortunately, most people who know a lot about a thing don’t know much about writing. If this is you, this is your book!

5. Anyone can learn to write well (enough). Mostly, writing is about listening and cutting and getting the hell out of the way of your story. The essays in this book will teach you how to do this.

There’s a reason this book warranted a 25th anniversary edition. It’s one of the best how-to manuals on writing out I can imagine, and I dream big. If you’re a writer, or want to be, you should read this book; if you’re serious about it, you should read it once a year.


Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt’s excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.


  1. He looks so happy sitting there at his quiet little desk, writing with what looks like a 50-cent BIC. I want to be WILLIAM ZINSSER!

    1. Looping back here after leaving a comment below to say that it is also enormously pleasing to me to read comments that fully express someone’s joy in reading and are also truly funny.

  2. A companion book, by Zinsser, is Writing to Learn. It continues the theme and expands it, on the theme, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.”

    On Writing Well is, by far, better that Stunk & White’s manual. It’s much more proscriptive than restrictive, and makes more sense.

    1. Thanks for the tip. That’s a fine theme to continue with, and my branch library has a copy, so I can plunge in immediately.

      And I love Strunk & White, but I realize it may be that irrational sort of love reserved for things dear from one’s past.

  3. I borrowed this book from the library last year, and I loved it so much that I had to buy a copy (or face the wrath of the library because I had reached my renewal limit). Great breakdown of the major points and that last sentence couldn’t be more true.

    1. I’ve had the same experience with so many books. I’m sure I’ll have it with this next one of his I’m going to go pick up today, Writing to Learn, which Walter suggested. But the frugal bitch in me insists on renting first to test drive, wherever possible.

  4. Collen – Can I just tell you how much I loved this piece? Another great post – simple, direct but oh-so-clever in the best way possible. Love the word play and the phrasing. “my word-choreographer chops” is just one great example of that.

    Please keep doing what you are doing. I learn so much by reading your writing and it makes me just want to keep writing too. I also enjoyed your call on World Changing Writing. More great stuff, so please, please keep bringing it.

    It all helps me to keep pushing that c-s boulder up that m-f hill.

  5. a) This review is all that’s right about any review
    b) I want a week being Kelly when she gets to be Mr. Zinsser
    c) Your commenters are so cool, thanks for the new title, Walt! (Would love to read your review of that one, too.)

    This can be tagged “The Uber-Useful Ones That Lead By Example” ~ many thanks.

    1. Yes—GirlPie! Thanks for the reminder, as long as I’m turning this into a primer on the kind of comments I really, really like to see.

      One other kind is absolutely a reco embedded in a thoughtful comment. Because we are all looking for that next, perfect read, and because a thoughtful comment helps us to identify them as such.

  6. On Writing Well is my favorite “writers on writing” book. I reread portions of it over and over, but you’re right, it deserves a close reading annually.

    I love Zinsser’s story describing the time he attended a school “day devoted to the arts. ” (In Chapter 1 of On Writing Well.) For the event Prof. Zinsser was paired as a guest speaker with a “fellow” writer, a surgeon who wrote on the side. For fun. The physician ends up blabbing endlessly about the delightful relaxation and stress-relief he gets from writing–a process Zinsser finds agonizing.

    “It had never occurred to me that writing could be easy,” writes Zinsser. “Maybe I should take up surgery on the side.”

    Thought you might enjoy this lovely candid photo recently taken of Prof. Zinsser on a NYC street.

    1. I loved that story, too! Such a wildly different perspective. With the exception of writing emails and (heh heh) replies to comments, most of my enjoyment with writing comes from having written. Writing itself is often sheer agony.

      And I came THIS CLOSE to using that delightful snap of zippity Zinsser for this post. But tradition won out. Oh, well—maybe for the next book review!

  7. You keep telling us to write book reviews as an exercise. Thanks for the prod. This was great and helps to show the rest of us how on earth to encapsulate a book’s main themes, and be witty at the same time.

    I don’t edit enough but I love the process. I love catching my own composition problems and fixing them. I becomes fun in a geeky sort of way–active voice, coordinate ideas in similar form, getting rid of ly adverbs (perhaps one of the hardest to do). A lot of people are writing and not writing well. And it’s too bad because it’s fun when you make yourself do it.

    1. Really? You love editing? We’d make us quite a pair, we would. Except that you’d never get to write, b/c you’d forever be editing.

      Which is funny, b/c as I mention above, I really don’t much enjoy writing! I guess I do enjoy *casual*, non-rigorous editing. I was doing a fair amount of it in my consulting work, and had a lot of fun with it. And I’m doing it now to a degree, in my writers’ group.

      I do think that writing book reviews is a wonderful exercise because it forces one to pay attention, think critically, and organize one’s thoughts. This one I agonized over for a couple of days, but ended up writing in less than a half-hour. So you never know.

      I’d love to think that all my review-writing is making it easier, but I think I just lucked out on this one.

      1. I read like people snack. When you do a review, did you read the book in one sitting? If you snack-read, do you take notes after each bit you read?

      2. I can’t remember the last time I’ve read anything but a graphic novel all the way through. I guess I’m not willing to make that kind of time anymore. (Is it even possible that I used to read for six hours a day?!)

        This year, I’ve been reading 20 – 60pp/day, depending on the density and/or intensity of the material. If it’s looking like something I will want to review (I can usually tell within the first 10pp), I’ll make notes in the margins and back of the book as I go. (Or on paper, if it’s a library/borrowed book, or I want to sell it back to the used bookstore when I’m done.)

        I haven’t made notes *after* each sitting, although that’s an interesting way of approaching it. Probably a great way to manage the info and thoughts when you’re getting started reviewing, if you’re inclined.

        I have a feeling that after all those years of writing papers in college and reviewing stuff on my blog/etc., I’m collapsing and internalizing a lot of steps. Maybe I should play with this to see if I can’t help further illuminate/unpack my process. Although I confess, the thought of doing it this way kinda makes me tired!

  8. Colleen, for all your self-deprecation about your own writing, I just wanted to say I get so much from your book reviews — this one in particular made me look your subject up online immediately and I’ll be placing an order soon. You’ve got the goods!

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