The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

Thirtieth anniversary of On Writing Well by William Zinsser, revised and expanded

By Barbara McClintock, Certified Translator

William Zinsser, On Writing Well, Harper Perennial, 7th edition; NY: April 5, 2016, 321 pp.
ISBN‑10: 0060891548; ISBN-13: 978-0060891541.

Writing guides are full of useful information for translators, including this one. This well-presented and readable book offers a wealth of tips about nonfiction writing with sections on interviews, travel articles, memoirs, science and technology, business writing, sports, as well as writing about the arts, critics, columnists and humour. William Zinsser, an American writer and writing professor at Yale University, revised the guide six times to keep pace with social trends. However, he continues to ask, “Who are you writing for?” “Yourself” was his answer.

The sections below provide examples of some of the topics covered by the guide.

Simplify, simplify

Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to simplify his own government’s memos. Take this one for example: “Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination. — U.S. government blackout order of 1942 [On Writing Well, p.7]

It was also discovered recently from Winston Churchill’s papers that he tried to do the same with his staff.1 In his introduction, William Zinsser explains that he was influenced by E.B. White and he even had a photograph of the writer in his office. The photograph illustrated the simplicity of the process according to Zinsser—the writer with a typewriter and a wastebasket. Today, we have computers, but nothing has replaced the writer, not yet, at least.

Me, myself and I

When we say we like a certain author’s style, “we like their personality as they express it on paper” [p.297]. Writers are at their most natural when they write in the first person. Under the heading Style, the author explains that there are many areas of writing where I is not allowed. “Newspapers don’t want it in the reports they send; […] colleges [and teachers] don’t want I in their term papers […] except the literary we.” (p.21) Zinsser’s advice is “If you aren’t allowed to use I, at least think I while you write, or write the first draft in the first person and then take the Is out. It will warm up your impersonal style.” Remember that I is the most interesting element in any story [p.175].

Bloated monsters

Zinsser’s students at Yale found it helpful when he bracketed superfluous words. Translators also need to watch out for clutter, e.g., “It should be pointed out,” “I might add,” and “It is interesting to note.” Zinsser provides examples of jargon, overuse of acronyms, short words that are better than long words and dead nouns (devoid of meaning), complaining that plain talk is not easily achieved in corporate America [p.174]. He points out categories of unnecessary words, such as prepositions (“order up”); adverbs that carry the same meaning as the verb “smile happily;” or adjectives that state a known fact “tall skyscraper.” Little qualifiers weaken any sentence, e.g., “a bit,” “sort of,” or “in a sense,” which don’t mean anything.

Editing or post-editing

A good editor brings an objective eye to the piece of writing. There is no end of ways in which an editor can improve a manuscript, but an editor’s hand must be invisible, according to Zinsser. There are two ways editors cause damage—altering style and altering content [p.300]. Clarity and accuracy should be the goal of editing or revising. Similar to editors and writers, the relationship of a translator and author should be one of negotiation and trust.

In conclusion, Zinsser points out that nonfiction involves more than writing—it should be entertaining and, above all, reliable.

1. “To do our work, we all have to read a mass of papers. Nearly all of them are far too long. This wastes time, while energy has to be spent in looking for the essential points. […] Let us not shrink from the short expressive phrase, even if it is conversational. […] The saving in time will be great, while the discipline of setting out the real points concisely will prove an aid to clearer thinking.”
[Winston Churchill in a memo to his staff entitled “Brevity,” August 9, 1940 quoted in Guidance on Drafting and Presentation of Reports, University of York website]