On Writing Well - Principles

2 minute read

I recently read On Writing Well, by William Zinsser.
In this book, the author provides seven principles that can be used to write great non-fiction. These are my notes.

The Transaction

At the heart of all great, non-fiction writing, is a personal transaction that projects the passion and nature of the writer. Each of us has our own background and experiences which shape the stories that we tell. Often, this is what captivates the reader.


The best sentences are devoid of words and jargon that do not add value. We should strive to distill our sentences down to the bare minimum that conveys the message. This refers not only to its length, but can also include inconsistent tenses, switching pronouns mid-sentence, or disconnected flows.

The simpler the sentence, the easier it will be to understand. Eliminate what is not useful. Be concise.



Deweed words and phrases that do not serve any purpose. The author gives some common examples of weeds to identify.

Word Clusters

  • I might add
  • It should be pointed out
  • It is interesting to note
  • Until such time

Superfluous Wording

  • Are you experiencing any pain vs Does it hurt
  • A personal friend of mine vs My friend
  • At the present time vs Now

Unnecessarily Long Words

  • Assistance vs Help
  • Remainder vs Rest
  • Initial vs First
  • Referred to as vs Called
  • Numerous vs Many

Inspect every word, critically assessing if it adds value.


Embrace your own style. When you try to sound like somebody else, you will lose that personal connection, and readers will pick up on the ingenuity. To help this, write in the first person, when possible.

Similar to what was described in “The Transaction”, sell yourself and your style.

The Audience

You can’t please everybody, nor can you appeal to every reader, so write for yourself. This also means writing as yourself. If you would not say something in conversation, then don’t write it. The author gives some common examples like “moreover” and “indeed”.

I don’t fully agree with this. I think that some words flow better when written than spoken, but food for thought nonetheless.


Reject journalese.
I had not heard this word before, but it is described as “a hackneyed style of writing supposedly characteristic of that in newspapers and magazines.”
Some examples of journalese include words such as “greats” and “notables”, padded verbs such as “beef up”, “hammered out” etc. Takeaway is that we have a plethora of actual words at our disposal. Use them.


“Good usage, to me, consists of using good words if they already exist - as they usually do - to express myself clearly and simply to someone else”.