Book Review: On Writing Well

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(Reviewed with a bit of flimflam)

wordplay by Mary Wells © 2013


On Writing Well

An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction

By William Zinsser

Available on Amazon


William Zinsser’s, On Writing Well, is not a lot of mumbo-jumbo. Instead, a hodge-podge of humor, examples, and useful tips make the reading easy and informative for the novice business-letter writer to the aspiring professional.

No matter what your age, style, or intended audience, “be yourself” is Zinsser’s recurring theme. The personality of a writer is expressed through confidence and enthusiasm. As Zinsser says, “Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal.” Of course, fuddy-duddies who ramble and repeat themselves only bore the reader. Likewise, whippersnappers who talk down to the reader make their own writing look like claptrap. Successful writers never make the reader feel like a nitwit.

“The only way to learn to write,” Zinsser points out, “is to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.” Professional writes can’t afford to dilly-dally the day away nor write willy-nilly. Unity and control are vital to success.

Master clean English skills and strive for unity of pronoun, tense and mood. To keep a sense of order for the reader, don’t flip-flop from first to second and third person pronouns nor play Ping-Pong with the past and present tense. A shillyshally tone is also unacceptable, so stick to one type of mood, be it casual and singsong or formal.

Writing pell-mell shows a lack of control. To get to the nitty-gritty, decide how much to cover and the main point to leave in the reader’s mind. Next, hobnob with yourself about the lead. Zinsser stresses, “The lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading.” Look for material everywhere for unique leads and story ideas. Notice billboards, signs, and graffiti. Read labels, medicine claims, mail catalogs and fillers. Even instructions for toys and other items may “give your lead a freshness of perception.”

Whether writing about a place, sporting event, or a scientific experiment, “There is nothing like human detail to make a story come alive.” Interviews are therefore important.

Although interviews give some people the heebie-jeebies, prepare ahead by creating a list of questions and be ready to record the answers. With practice, one of the most common and popular nonfiction forms can be mastered.

Turn an entire article topsy-turvy, if necessary, to get it into tip-top condition. “Simplify, prune, and strive for order,” instructs Zinsser. Beware of long fancy words when teeny-weeny ones will do. On the other hand, shun itty-bitty words that qualify feelings – ‘a bit,’ ‘kind of,’ ‘very,’  ‘too.’ “Keep thinking and rewriting until you say what you want to say.”

“Knowing when to end an article,” Zinsser advises “is far more important than most writers realize.” To avoid a wishy-washy ending after all the facts are presented, find a remark or unexpected last detail that has, “a sense of finality.’

To anyone who believes that polished writing is completed by means hocus-pocus or abracadabra:  fiddle-faddle!

Mary Wells, an Arizona native, has been writing rhyming poetry for as long as she can remember. Published poems include magazines, a radio program, church bulletins and plays as well as a self-published book. Mary especially enjoys writing biblical poems. In addition, she creates customized rhymes for any reason as a unique gift-giving option for others, including companies. Her tongue-in-cheek “wordplay “articles have been published in local newspapers as well as a college literary magazine. Writing and compiling a booklet of her husband’s boyhood adventures is a joyous current project. Today’s book review is an example of her “play-on-words” style of writing.


Mary Wells

480-255-6443  (An online Christian bookstore)

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