Whenever I read any sort of book on writing, I’m wary. I’m wary, because too many books on writing seem to tout that their way is the right way, when, in theory, there is no one-way-right-way in the world of writing. Some people like to separate their paragraphs sooner than others; some like big hunky chunky paragraphs. Some people write with their pants on; some people write upside down on a couch. Only in the world of grammar and proper usage and “universal standards,” I believe, is where a sentence can be declared right or wrong. And if you do happen to break a rule, it better for a good reason other than to just break a rule.
So, is On Writing Well such a book? Does it make me wary?
Yes. I’m wary about some of the stylistic things that he points out in the journalism industry (regarding indents), even though I’m a novelist.
But this book also makes me swoon, because Zinsser clearly knows good writing from bad writing, and what makes one passage work and another one sag.
Zinsser won’t tell you all of the steps to writing a great memoir or an article. Books on writing such as his tend to be highly-concentrated doses of what works and what doesn’t. If I wanted to write a sports article, Zinsser is a good place to start, but I don’t think I’d be able to write a sports article with Zinsser alone. I would, of course, need to read sports articles, and books on writing sports articles.
Even with its flaws, On Writing Well has its charms thanks to the charms of Zinsser. His clear writing style on clear writing makes this writing book one that everyone should read, even if you happen to disagree with it. I’m thankful I borrowed it from my library so I could read it for free, but now I want to buy my own copy to keep around.
I would giving too much away if I tried to explain it. You just need to learn the “secrets” yourself.