On Writing Well will change how I write forever. I found myself furiously taking notes because I didn’t want to forget the best bits — and I want to share a few of them.
The book is for anybody that wants to learn how to write, and mostly everyone will benefit from getting better at writing. Whether you’re sending a quick email or the CEO briefing the company — getting your ideas across succinctly is important.
1. The most important sentence is the first one
I knew this, but it was a nice reminder. When I start to read something, I want to know quickly that it’s worth my time. If I don’t get a reason to keep going, I won’t. There are too many things competing for my time and my attention span is shorter than it used to be. If I become uninterested for about half a minute, I’m already thinking about bailing.
The first sentence needs to grab the reader and give them a reason to go onto the second sentence — and so on. You have to hook them immediately and steadily pull them in as you build into what you’re saying.
If you’re publishing online, this advice extends to the title of the article. If you don’t compel the reader to click, they won’t even reach the first sentence.
I don’t give much thought to how I start my writing. I made more of an effort with this article. I started with a bold statement that ‘On Writing Well will change how I write forever’. I also promised to ‘share some of the best bits’, giving a reason to keep reading. Hey, if you’re still reading, I guess it worked. 😉
2. The essence of writing, is rewriting
This was my biggest take away, and it was emphasised throughout the book.
I’ve always appreciated clear, beautiful sentences. It’s easy to assume someone either has a way with words, or they don’t. But remember, the perfect sentence probably started as a crappy one.
Good writers spend more time rewriting, than writing. A lot of fussing and tinkering — making it clearer, tighter, simpler. Removing words or whole paragraphs that aren’t doing work. Changing the order of things. Reading it aloud to see how it differs from how you speak.
Paul Graham is one of my favourite writers. His essays take weeks to write. Even this very short 423 word essay took over an hour. He spent twice as much time rewriting, compared to writing. He also has close friends give feedback on early drafts, forcing more rewriting.
It sounds like a lot of faffing about. Is it worth the effort? I think so.
People make decisions and take actions based on what you write. You want them to be the right ones. They change their minds or become inspired. Or they don’t. It’s important to give yourself the best chance of getting the outcome you want.
The other benefit to rewriting is it forces you to take your time. I often get a strong sense of clarity when I take a break and return with fresh eyes. It’s not unusual to delete or re-arrange large chunks — or sometimes pick another direction altogether.
I’ve become lazy lately and often skip rewriting. I’m going to change that, starting with this post.
3. Narrow the story, think small
I struggle with this a lot. I start off writing about one thing, but soon find myself trying to tackle a handful of connected things too.
Let’s say you want to write about strategy. It’s a big topic of it’s own, and there are lots of points you can make about it. You might find yourself saying that strategy must be clear and well known by everyone. You then find yourself drifting into it being a leader’s responsibility — before you know it, you’re covering large topics of leadership too.
You’re better off narrowing it to one aspect of strategy and finding something specific to make your point. Far better to convey one thing well, than several unclearly.
Try it. You might be surprised how easy it is to get back to the wider point you wanted to make in the first place. You realise all you need to do it clarify it — the narrow story did a good enough job of getting it across.
I need to fight hard against the tendency to cover big topics or many things in one go. As soon as I go down this route, I start to get overwhelmed by the size of the task — and then I get bored of writing. I resort to covering each topic in less detail (and less well), and end up covering a number of things poorly. The point is lost.
The right thing to do is pause and not go down that route. Come back to something narrower and more specific.
4. Look for the human element
The human element brings a story to life. Where you can, interview people and get them talking. It will help turn a seemingly drab topic into something fascinating.
William Zinsser gives the example of when he was asked to write a long article about Sotheby’s, the London auction firm. He found out that Sotheby’s was broken down into various domains (silver, art etc.), each one with an expert in charge. In interviewing each of them, he stumbled across some great anecdotes that helped liven up the story (unloved objects buried in the strangest of places etc).
Another example is writing about the growing problem of homelessness. It would be easy to tackle the topic in a factual way, but much more interesting to tell the story of a homeless person. It would get to the heart of what it means to be homeless (how people end up being homeless, how hard it is to reverse the situation, the dangers of being on the streets etc.) You can weave the main point you want to make throughout the story.
5. Imitate your favourite writers
If you like how someone writes, give yourself permission to be inspired by them. Take note of how they use language and practice using their tricks. As time goes on, you’ll settle into who you’re supposed to be. And you’ll be a better writer for it.
6. When the end presents itself, grab it
If the first sentence is the most important, the last sentence comes a close second. It’s the last thing someone remembers.
I’ve always struggled with how to end something. I don’t give it much thought until I start to notice I’m getting there — and then I lazily fall back on summarising everything above. It never feels the right thing to do. But it’s like that email you write in a fit of anger, knowing you shouldn’t send — you do it anyway.
William Zinsser’s advice is, if you’ve made the point you wanted to make, look for the nearest exit. The best type of ending often comes as a surprise to the reader, but feels right all the same. Try to end with something that encapsulates your idea, but also jolts the reader with it’s sharpness and unexpectedness. Some other ways to end are coming full circle or ending with a quote.
7. Use a dictionary and thesaurus
I was surprised by this. The closest I’ve come to using a dictionary or thesaurus recently is a quick search for the meaning of a word on google.
But it makes sense. Two of the biggest mistakes a writer can make is being unclear or boring. It forces the reader to work too hard. A thesaurus helps you find interesting ways of saying something. The dictionary is a good place to check you’re using the right word.
I’m going to make an effort to use both in my writing over the next few months.
8. Writing is hard work
Getting just a few paragraphs to flow together and be a joy to read is hard. It requires clear thinking, patience and an obsession for the smallest details. It can be frustrating work. Only a burning desire to want to write better than everyone else will pull you through.
It seems fitting to leave you with a quote from William Zinsser himself:
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