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On Writing Well–an appreciation

Updated: May 2, 2023

Of interest to non-fiction writers of all levels

I recently finished re-reading “On Writing Well,” by William Zinsser. It is perhaps the most influential book on writing non-fiction of the 20th century. And it is the book that made me think that maybe, just maybe, writing non-fiction could be as interesting as writing fiction.

I’ve tried to read Zinsser’s book every five to 10 years, and each time I do I feel like the boy who cleaned Michelangelo’s brushes. I may be using the master’s tools, but I am nowhere near the master’s level—nor ever will be.

But Zinsser’s advice is so apt for the kind of writing that we do for our clients. Zinsser, who passed away in 2015, was one of the great proponents of the minimalist writing school. He famously said, “Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.”

I strive to live by that advice. We know that too many words will obscure our client’s message, not clarify it. Unnecessary detail will drive the reader away, while a compact, contextual narrative will draw the reader into our client’s story and leave a positive impression. In other words, it is much more difficult to be concise than to be wordy. And so much more rewarding to our readers!

My favorite quote from “On Writing Well” is his comment on the fact that, unlike fiction writers, non-fiction writers are beholden to the literal truth. He says, “Non-fiction writers…are infinitely accountable: to the facts, to the people they interviewed, to the locale of their story and to the events that happened there. They are also accountable to their craft and all its perils of excess and disorder: losing the reader, confusing the reader, not keeping the reader engaged from beginning to end.”

This is a responsibility that my associates and I take very seriously. And if you’d like to learn more about the craft of writing, I can recommend no other book so unreservedly as “On Writing Well.” At the risk of further enriching Jeff Bezos, here is the Amazon link:

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