This article also appeared on LinkedIn.
There are hundreds of books that can help you become a better writer. But if you're like me, you're probably pressed for time and need to prioritize how you spend the few extra hours each week you might have outside of work and home responsibilities to hone your writing skills.
Of the several dozen books on writing I've read over the years, there is one that stands out. I recommend it to nearly everyone I know who is trying to improve their writing: On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, by William Zinsser.
Since it was first published in 1976, the book has sold nearly 1.5 million copies, and it continues to rank at the top of writing books on Amazon.
William Zinsser passed away in 2015. But his insight into the art and craft of writing well will live on in his book. Here are a few reasons why this book will help you:
- Zinsser teaches you how to write with clarity and impact. He loathes jargon and clichés, he hates passive constructions, and he despises qualifier words that dilute meaning and weaken the impact of the message you want to deliver.
- He's got a "tough love" approach that draws from his many years of teaching writing classes to undergraduates at Yale. His voice is firm, yes, but also caring. He wants you to improve your writing.
- It's like having him stand next to you as you write. I often ask, "What would William Zinsser think about this phrase?" I can sometimes hear his voice when I'm contemplating a sentence that I know could be better.
- In addition to offering several practical examples of good writing in every chapter, the book itself is an example of the author putting his writing principles into practice.
Here are some of the nuggets of advice Zinsser shares in his book:
Hook your reader with the first sentence.
"The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn't induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn't induce him to continue to the third sentence, it's equally dead."
Write in the first person.
"Writers are obviously at their most natural when they write in the first person. Writing is an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper, and it will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity."
Read good writing.
"Writing is learned by imitation. If anyone asked me how I learned to write, I'd say I learned by reading the men and women who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it."
Listen to your voice on the page.
"Also bear in mind, when you're choosing your words and stringing them together, how they sound. This may seem absurd: readers read with their eyes. But in fact they hear what they are reading far more than you realize."
Put your personality on the page.
"You must find some way to elevate your act of writing into an entertainment. Usually this means giving the reader an enjoyable surprise. Any number of devices will do the job...These seeming amusements in fact become your 'style.' When we say we like the style of certain writers, what we mean is that we like their personality as they express it on paper."
Convey a single message.
"Every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn't have before. Not two thoughts, or five--just one. So decide what single point you want to leave in the reader's mind."
Edit your work.
"Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it's where the game is won or lost. That idea is hard to accept. We all have an emotional equity in our first draft; we can't believe that it wasn't born perfect. But the odds are close to 100 percent that it wasn't."
Strip out the inessential.
"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...these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence."
"You learn to write by writing. It's a truism, but what makes it a truism is that it's true. The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain amount of words on a regular basis."
Say only as much as you need to.
"When you're ready to stop, stop. If you have presented all the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the nearest exit."
For more inspiring quotes from On Writing Well, check out my Slideshare.