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On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

William Zinsser · 26 HN comments
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Amazon Summary
On Writing Well has been praised for its sound advice, its clarity and the warmth of its style. It is a book for everybody who wants to learn how to write or who needs to do some writing to get through the day, as almost everybody does in the age of e-mail and the Internet. Whether you want to write about people or places, science and technology, business, sports, the arts or about yourself in the increasingly popular memoir genre, On Writing Well offers you fundamental priciples as well as the insights of a distinguished writer and teacher. With more than a million copies sold, this volume has stood the test of time and remains a valuable resource for writers and would-be writers.
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Hacker News Stories and Comments

All the comments and stories posted to Hacker News that reference this book.
A real human! Welcome! I'm glad to hear from _you_!

One last bit of unsolicited advice: your job is writing. This is the best writing book I've ever read that deals with the issues I saw in your writing: https://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-Classic-Guide-Nonfiction...

You can tell the author knows what they're talking about because the book is a really easy read!

I've taken the class within Amazon.

Honestly there isn't anything that you couldn't get by simply reading and applying the advice from "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White[1] and "On Writing Well" by Zinsser [2].

The primary philosophy is that if you can't write well, then you haven't thought it through. The act of writing is an act of reasoning.

0. Practice in a strong feedback loop. This applies for anything, not just writing.

1. Ruthlessly reduce your sentences. Repeat until you can't eliminate or combine any more words.

2. Avoid adverbs. Use "dashed" or "sprinted" instead of "ran quickly". Learn more words.

3. Avoid weasel words like "should" "could" "might". Take a stance and give concrete reasons.

4. Use concrete data over descriptors. "+5% profit" over "increased profit".

5. Write in active voice. Look up the "by Zombies" trick.

6. Use the simplest word that maintains your meaning. No one needs to use the word "utilize".

[1]: https://www.amazon.com/Elements-Style-Fourth-William-Strunk/...

[2]: https://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-Classic-Guide-Nonfiction...

criddell
> 5. Write in active voice. Look up the "by Zombies" trick.

This is something I struggle with so I took your advice and found this:

https://www.grammarly.com/blog/a-scary-easy-way-to-help-you-...

Thanks!

mabbo
This is awesome. Even after the class I found it so hard to do this and this trick is going to really help. Thanks for sharing it!
ecyrb
I found "Style: Toward Clarity and Grace" [1] by Joseph M. Williams to be more informative than both of these recommendations, but YMMV. There is a newer version, but I haven't read it.

[1]: https://smile.amazon.com/Style-Clarity-Chicago-Writing-Publi...

valbaca
Thanks for the suggestion (and for using AmazonSmile!)
ben509
#0 is correct. I'll recommend this piece on S&W [1] and specifically on point #5 [2].

These style guides, especially points #1 through #6, came about from bureaucrats who were essentially filibustering or otherwise obfuscating in their writing.

The root problem there was not the long-winded writing, it was their intent to hide bad things.

If you can make sure you're not carrying water for corrupt officials, you best strategy is to try to write natural prose. Yes, do look for wordy phrases or cliches, but don't obsess over adverbs or the passive voice.

[1] https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=15509 [2] http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003366.h...

Veen
Geoffrey Pullum (author of the language log article you link to) also has an excellent set of videos explaining why most advice about passives is bunkum.

https://youtu.be/suAASPc_s0A

The best guide I've ever read to writing nonfiction is William Zinsser's "On Writing Well". If you do any writing for work or pleasure, his advice is indispensable:

https://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-Classic-Guide-Nonfiction...

igravious
The 1-star reviews are more than a mite worrying.

https://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-Classic-Guide-Nonfiction...

I tend to rely more on 1-star reviews than 5-star ones. I find them to be more reliable guides.

May I suggest that you write well in spite of the advice given here rather than because of it. :)

wglb
What in the book, from your reading, is the bad advice?
tptacek
I disagree with Zinsser about colons.
None
None
tptacek
It's a really good book.
igravious
Okay, I'll give it a look-see. I didn't mean to be overly negative.
Throwaway23412
I tend to look at the percentage of ratings. Literally 1% of the book's reviews are 1-star reviews. Saying that 1% of 1-star ratings is "more than a mite worrying" seems overly negative to me. I'm genuinely interested in what you buy online if 1% of 1-star ratings immediately deters you.
krmmalik
Completely agree. I learned more in 2 weeks of reading Zinsser than I did in 3 yrs of English at high school.
combatentropy
Completely agree. However I first read the Elements of Style. In 2 days of reading Strunk & White I unlearned 3 years of high school English. Later I read Zinsser and found him to be saying the same things. But a lot of people say that Zinsser's take is easier to read.
chatmasta
On Writing Well and Elements of Style were required reading in almost every English class I took. Sounds like you had some bad teachers.
krmmalik
It's not a part of our curriculum in the UK. I, and many others like me, had never heard of him before.
Many of the "Simple English"-language articles on Wikipedia are better (IMHO) than their English counter-parts. Perhaps the best would be a mix of both, eg the introduction to:

https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fraction_(mathematics)

"A fraction is a number that shows how many equal parts there are. When we write fractions, we show one number with a line above another number, for example, (...) 1⁄4 or 1/4. The top number tells us how many parts there are, the second number tells us the total number of parts.

The top part of the fraction is called a numerator. The bottom part of the fraction is called a denominator. For example, 1/4: The 1 is the numerator here, and the 4 is the denominator."

vs the "English" one:

"A fraction (from Latin fractus, "broken") represents a part of a whole or, more generally, any number of equal parts. When spoken in everyday English, a fraction describes how many parts of a certain size there are, for example, one-half, eight-fifths, three-quarters. A common, vulgar, or simple fraction (examples: 1/2 and 17/3) consists of an integer numerator displayed above a line (or before a slash), and a non-zero integer denominator, displayed below (or after) that line. Numerators and denominators are also used in fractions that are not common, including compound fractions, complex fractions, and mixed numerals."

> Is it that you think more about what you're saying?

I think this is one important reason - and key behind all good writing. Using a limited vocabulary is one way to force yourself to do that.

It's also a way to force yourself to examine what you write, and make sure you actually use words you understand, and not stray too far into your passive vocabulary and accidentally introduce ambiguity because you think you are using more precise words than you actually are.

I would also say that, while rich language can be fun, most writing can benefit from being simplified. Not everything needs to read like Paradise Lost.

In the words of Hemmingway: "Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself."

(Here with more context, than the traditional quip: "The first draft of anything is shit.", in order to emphasize that the point is that everything needs to be reworked).

On a similar note, I recommend that everyone who writes (ie: everyone) read: "On Writing Well" by Zinsser (himself a propoment of revisions, the book is in its 30th edition):

http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-Classic-Guide-Nonfiction/...

On top of what have been said, there are two important advantages over young people that old devs should have. The first advantage is that compared to young people your advantage is your long experience in Computer Science. For instance: you should have a better understanding of your stack, you have mastered a lot of the basics of CS with several paradigms in different programming languages, databases SQL/NoSQL, etc... You may have a little bit of knowledge around the edge of your stack and outside...

For the second advantage it depends where you want to do. If you want to stay a dev and only code then the best thing to do is to master your stack and learn complex things. By doing that you differentiate yourself and increase the barrier of entry. So for instance to learn C++, AWS, Machine Learning, Hadoop ecosystem, webgl... Depending your field and what can be the next big hard thing with it.

Else, the other way is to go up in the hierarchy to be a team leader and maybe to go higher. At first you have been (or should) start to learn how to manage people. You should know how to lead your team when things are doing well but also when things are at the worst. Sometimes you have deadlines that are hard to meet. Sometimes the stress is at the maximum, financially the company is not doing well, or goals and ideas diverge... It's all the experience you need to get to be able to manage these situations and start to be a great leader.

Also you -may- start to learn to master git to be a team leader, to be able to fix the problems, and manage the repo for the code reviews. Another point should be to increase your communication skill, every day by talking with your team, by enjoying to write well written emails and speeches. These books [1] are a good start. And also a last point that I think is important is to start to get financial skills with things like financial management, accounting, and if possible to be able to do simple DCFs...

[1] http://www.amazon.com/Elements-Style-4th-William-Strunk/dp/0...

http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Nonficti...

http://www.amazon.com/Pitch-Anything-Innovative-Presenting-P...

I'm afraid I don't really write enough to comment on how you should get started. Or rather how you should get finished. The idea of noting down ideas, snippets in a book (or digitally) is good. I have a couple of rats nests of small items, and todos, ideas -- 2/3s in various ColorNote[c]s on my Android -- the rest in text files in a mercurial repo).

If the idea you note down is any good today, it'll be a good idea tomorrow too. And a year from now.

If you have enough good starting points, actually spending some time writing out an essay from them becomes easier. Remember you'll probably want to do at least three re-writes if you're hoping the result is going to be any good. Lots of people don't do that -- and it shows. Most half-decent blog posts would've been a lot better if the authors took the time to rework them a bit more. Or, according to Hemmingway: "“The first draft of anything is shit.”

So with the caveat that I don't actually write much (yet?), the best book I've read on writing is: William Zinsser's "On Writing Well": http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Edition/...

Highly recommended for anyone that have to communicate in writing (ie: everyone).

> I don't have anything to say to people who know less than me, because explaining obvious things seems boring, and I don't know what to say to people on HN/LessWrong, because I feel like they are smarter than me and already know everything I am about to say.

For essays, it can be good to write for yourself. To yourself, or someone much like yourself, but someone who's perhaps not yet encountered one particular idea, one particular technique -- one particular subject.

That usually gives a good framework for avoid "talking down". Write to yourself of one, two or five years ago. There will be many that don't have that last year, years of experience and circumstance that led you down the path to were you are now. Perhaps such a perspective makes it easier for you to share something?

[c] http://www.colornote.com/download.html

I mostly use Colornote to keep track of ideas, such as app/application/project ideas along with a couple of bulletpoints (eg: Reinvent email: look into alternative client/server sync such as jmap; store email in normalized sql db?; document db?; store attachments based on content hash? (free de-dup); Store email body as same? (Good for multi-user server support for mailinglists ... etc))

On Writing Well by William Zinsser http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Edition/...

It's absolutely the best book for anybody who keeps a blog or writes any sort of non-fiction. I try and re-read it once a year.

I have three short answers for you.

1. http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Nonficti...

2. Watch the video at the end of this link: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/watch-me-write-this-arti... The take away is write, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite some more.

3. Pay attention to the people who write well in your life. When you read an email that feels well written try to figure out why you like it. And use those elements in your future writings.

Zinnser's On Writing Well improved my writing. Alabama Power does not take internet points, however, and I remain talentless.

http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Edition/...

samsolomon
I second On Writing Well. It's an absolute must read for anyone writing non-fiction.

There are two other books I'd throw up with it—Revising Prose by Richard Lanham and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

Those three books together are a fantastic course in writing.

These two books helped me. The downside is I get annoyed now when reading other people's bad writing.

http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Edition/...

http://www.amazon.com/The-Curious-Case-Misplaced-Modifier/dp...

Jul 31, 2013 · MarlonPro on Why I Left Medium
@sillysaurus I'm not sure if you're a book-reader. I am reading your comment and I am seeing the exact person this book is talking about. If you like to read about non-fiction writing, I suggest "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser.

Here's the amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Edition/...

Just like coding, the "shortest" path to becoming a good writer is practice - practice everyday.

On Writing Well: http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Nonficti...
creativename
Awesome, I just picked it up on Amazon. I'll give it a shot
The best single source I've come across that helps with writing, is "On Writing Well":

http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Nonficti...

It has plenty of examples and advice on various types of writing.

Beyond that, my advice is to simply read good texts. One starting point would be:

http://www.amazon.com/American-Essays-Charles-B-Shaw/dp/B000...

Or, for something newer:

http://brevity.org/misc/bestswi.html

While doing a quick search, I also came across this:

http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/philg/2009/05/20/need-examples-...

Which seems to be a great starting point.

lunchladydoris
What I love about On Writing Well is that it tells you what to do while also being a perfect example of that advice is action.
Nov 02, 2012 · e12e on How I Wrote a Book in 3 Days
Clearly, this shows how you wrote a book in eight days (five days for the first draft, three days for the second). Still impressive, but it isn't the same as writing a book in three days.

As noted by others, this also discounts the time taken earlier, discussing the process to be documented, with your friend -- so I guesstimate "How I wrote a book in a short month" might be more accurate.

I really wonder if you didn't just demonstrate how to write a (good) blog post in a month -- I'll be very surprised if your book is better (sheds meaningfully more light on your process) than the blog post.

Either way, I respect you for doing it - and getting it done. It reminds me of someone (couldn't find the link now?) writing that their first book took one year to write, spending less than a month on the structure, and the rest on writing (and re-writing) -- and the second book took three months, two of which was spent on the structure/table of contents. Moral being that time spent on design/plan is returned many times when "fleshing out" the text.

Perhaps it was noted somewhere in "On Writing Well"[1] -- a book I highly recommend for anyone interested in doing any kind of writing.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0060891548/ref=as_li_ss_tl?...

On Writing Well, by William Zinsser is a classic that you may find useful.

http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Edition/...

Jul 31, 2012 · kalid on How to Write
"On writing well", William Zinsser

http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Edition/...

I've read those, which are good, but I think this one is better than all of them put together:

http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Edition/...

rgraham
This book is on my shelf. It's a thoughtful and practical approach to language and writing. The prose in the book is often winking at you as it reveals a principle.
telemachos
Without arguing for or against it, I'll just say it's the first book JGC recommends in his linked post. :)
jeremyt
I'm just going to fess up and say that I didn't read the linked post, just the comments.
telemachos
We all do it sometimes, and it's no big deal. I just couldn't pass up the smile.
Jun 22, 2012 · iamdann on Ask HN: Summer reading
On Writing Well by William Zinsser (http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Edition/...) is fantastic. It's not specifically about ad copy, having passion about what you're writing, as well as the fundamentals in this book, will help a ton.
Nov 22, 2011 · bretthardin on Writing
I read somewhere, "It doesn't matter what you write, just write."

I agree with that statement. I also suggest the book, "On Writing Well." It helped me greatly with writing.

http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Nonficti...

I recommend On Writing Well by William Zinsser:

http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Nonficti...

inetsee
I think Writing to Learn by William Zinsser:

(http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Learn-William-Zinsser/dp/00627...)

would also be a good choice.

Strunk & White's The Elements of Style deserves a mention here in case anyone has missed it -- clear, concise, and practical writing advice.

1999 edition on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Elements-Style-Fourth-William-Strunk/d...

1918 edition online: http://www.bartleby.com/141/

For more hand-holding, On Writing Well by William Zinsser is worthwhile.

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Nonficti...

I agree with what the author is saying but take a slightly different approach to it. I think writing well is important but I think more focus should be put on writing succinctly. Because if you write succinctly it forces you to be clear.

This is the theory of William Zinsser's On Writing Well (http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Nonficti...).

It's one of my favorite books and its primary point is that verbosity is the enemy of clarity and therefore the clearest sentence is also the smallest one. I think that concept is a 1,000 times more important than having perfect grammar.

Oh, and to bring this back to tech, I think this concept is even more important given the sheer amount of data available to use today. Everyone should be trying to write as succinctly as possible just so their readers can fit it all in.

pwk
if you write succinctly it forces you to be clear

Well put. I think this is also true for code: succinct code is generally easier to read and understand. This only works up to a point, though: overly succinct code becomes obfuscated code. Or maybe it's simply that some kinds of succinctness are beneficial, and some kinds are harmful.

kalid
I agree. I've long chased-after a notion of "information density" -- you want to get the best bang for your (written) buck. Zinsser's book is one of my favorites.
petercooper
One needs to be careful, however, of being too concise or focused on density alone. There are many lessons that are better relayed (and learned) in the form of a story or anecdote than in dry, factual form.

Of course, if you do use stories, then being concise within that form is, naturally, still an important consideration, but storytelling mustn't be ruled out simply because it tends to rely on using more words (I know you weren't saying that, but I think it's a key point.)

Feb 19, 2009 · tokenadult on On writing well
The excerpted book

http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Well-30th-Anniversary-Nonficti...

is wonderful. I have my doubts about whether the professor who posted that long excerpt on a public website really understands what "fair use" is about in United States copyright law. But if readers read the excerpt after following the link here and then buy the book, that would be a good outcome.

cookiecaper
The professor may have some additional slack -- copyright law explicitly mentions educational uses under its acceptable fair use rationale, so if anyone can get away with an excerpt that runs a tad long, it's probably a university professor.
kajecounterhack
Yeah, I think the excerpt exceeds fair use length requirements. Still, while reading two chapters is nice, it can't be worse than providing a one-chapter excerpt. After all, the book is a package deal, and it's important to read the whole thing if you plan on improving your writing.
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