Business Writing

The Secret of Good Writing

As a writer I read a lot. Much of what I read is about writing. Today I was reminded of some important things that I learnt about good writing from a master.

William Zinsser is a US writer and On Writing Well is one of his best known books.

Today’s post is full of quotes from Zinsser. He said what he wanted to say so clearly.

In this book Zinsser shares his secret of good writing:

“The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to the education and rank.”

In August 2009 Zinsser gave a talk to international students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism on “Writing English as a Second Language”.

Whether English is your second language, your third, or your mother tongue, the four principles he described are sound. Check out his original article to read the examples he used to illustrate the points he was making.

Principle One: Clarity
“If it’s not clear you might as well not write it. You might as well stay in bed.”

Principle Two: Simplicity
“Simple is good. Most students from other countries don’t know that. When I read them a sentence that I admire, a simple sentence with short words, they think I’m joking … Writing is not something you have to embroider with fancy stitches to make yourself look smart.”

Principle Three: Brevity
“Short is always better than long. Short sentences are better than long sentences. Short words are better than long words. Don’t say currently if you can say now. Don’t say assistance if you can say help. Don’t say numerous if you can say many. Don’t say facilitate if you can say ease. Don’t call someone an individual [five syllables!]; that’s a person, or a man or a woman. Don’t implement or prioritize. Don’t say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. Writing is talking to someone else on paper or on a screen.”

Principle Four: Humanity
“Be yourself. Never try in your writing to be someone you’re not. Your product, finally, is you. Don’t lose that person by putting on airs, trying to sound superior.”