Book review: On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser

I usually wouldn’t have selected this book if it weren’t for a reading club at my work. We wanted to improve our writing as part of improving our communication skills –  most of it is written. But why wouldn’t I pick this book if one of my main passions is writing? Because the book is directed towards nonfiction writing and when thinking of myself as a writer, I believe I’m mostly labeled as a fiction writer. But communication at work is written so it made sense to check how my writing was in the non-fictional world.

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What was different from this book?

The author, William Zinsser, explains with examples (the only way to learn) how to find your own voice. He gives a huge importance in finding your true self, your true voice. He encourages you to find the passion and enjoyment in your daily writing tasks and to never forget your own principles and the ones of the story you want to talk about.

But how is the sound of our writing voices?

Your writing voice should be as you are, not how you talk, but how you perceive things in your head. Zinsser gives the following advice:

“Don’t flight such a current if it feels right. Trust your material if it’s taking you into terrain you didn’t intend to enter but where the vibrations are good…”

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The importance of finding the right words

The right words don’t necessarily mean the complex sounding ones. “Just because they’re writing fluently doesn’t mean they’re writing well,” Zinsser mentions. How many times we read a book with lots of interesting new words, and we find ourselves wishing we had more vocabulary. But sometimes we don’t need this, we only need to find the right words, the ones specific enough to show what we mean. There is no need for complexity, rather for specificity.

When we write fictional books, we tend to overthink the writing process too much. As we write, we’re trying to sound good and to ensure our text looks not simple – not amateurish. We want others to notice we have a great vocabulary and in this effort, we sometimes lose our own voice. I have tried many times to edit my manuscripts in an effort to make the text sound smarter – not simple – but using words that weren’t true to my own rhythm and voice.

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And how about simplicity and clarity?

Sometimes we take too much effort in describing a scene or a character that we lose our sense of direction. “Clutter is the disease of the American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words…” Zinsser mentions.  And although this quote refers to American writing, it still applies to all the writing world and even to all languages. How many times I have found the same issue in my mother tongue Spanish.

Part of this clarity is to question ourselves: Is our story,  the narrative, the description of scenes, and especially dialogue making sense?

Enjoying the process

We spent too much time thinking about the finished work. We tend to visualize or think too much about when the manuscript will be ready, when the book is going to be in a readable stage, and when a possible publishing time could come. We imagine the end line too often and we don’t find ourselves enjoying the process. We are writers, the process of writing should be “our thing” not going after editors and publishers. Let us enjoy the process for the time that is needed.

As Zinsser mentions: “The writer, his eye on the finish line, never gave enough thought to how to run the race,” and “You won’t write well until you understand that writing is an evolving process, not a finished product.”

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How much are we willing to defend our work and to dare to be ourselves?

No matter how much editing we do ourselves, our manuscripts will suffer one day with other editors. We have to make sure that our writing and our voice are still there.  “What you write is yours and nobody else’s”

I’ve struggled with this issue a lot. I want readers to recognize my voice. But sometimes, I’m so lost in having a decent product, in having precise sentences and paragraphs, good words, believable characters, believable setups, etc, that I lose my voice in it. Whatever comes out of our manuscript, it has to be ours, it has to show our own personality. As Zinsser puts it, “Writing well means believing in your writing and believing in yourself, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel”.  This mindset is key, how many times we suppress our thoughts and expressions while we write; an inner voice saying “no, that sounds ridiculous, people won’t understand it.” But we have to understand that there is a difference between readers not able to follow a story structure and not be able to follow the author’s sense of wit and voice. We shouldn’t worry about the latter, we should just go with our guts.

We tend to forget so much of these tips. We’re scared what readers of our manuscript will say, how copywriters will find the text and how editors will see it. We’ve been told rules such as not repeating words, but sometimes they are needed for a reason, sometimes the repetition is there to provide emphasis and to give it a specific rhythm (like the double sometimes in this sentence). Many times when we change our words just to obey rules, we change the effect we are trying to give to our voice, to our characters, and to our story.

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What other advice was also very helpful about this book?

Zinsser treats comedy as a good resource for writing, as a good way to show your personality. This doesn’t mean that you have to tell jokes, but it’s related to the wit with how you tell things. In most cases, this might be the best way to show the true you.

In summary, I really enjoyed the book. Even if I don’t intend to write a non-fiction book, it still had plenty of useful advice, useful not only for non-fictional writers but also for fictional writers, so I definitely recommend it. You can get the book here. 

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Scheduling your priorities

I didn’t want to write about this until I knew what I was doing. I still don’t, but I’m improving. For years, I’ve tried to form a good daily writing habit. There had been periods of time when I had written almost every single weekday for months, and then months when I have written nothing. Could I just have a good writing habit that could be sustainable? I want to be able to write every single day or at least 85% (6 of 7 days) as a permanent habit. It doesn’t matter if I only spend 30 mins, 1 hour or more, I just want this to be ingrained in me, in my daily tasks, like taking a shower – I could skip one day, but more?

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For the previous months, I’ve been doing a re-engineering of this process, wanting to make the most of my time: balance my work with writing, personal activities, hobbies and getting a proper rest. I had been failing for years, but I feel that I’m taking a sustainable approach now. How? Simple: I schedule my life priorities, and one of them is writing.

I’ve scheduled writing for the past months for the early mornings, as the first thing I need to do when I wake up. It hasn’t been easy and I’ve missed the process during my vacation. But the key is to understand that this is a life priority; it should be scheduled and not added for “when you have time”. Because let’s face it, if you leave writing for when you manage to organize the rest of your day, your work, your personal life, and everything else, you won’t find time or you will be too tired for it.

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I’ve heard that in order to make a habit, you have to repeat it twenty-one times. I don’t know if that is the magical number, but from personal experience, at least you need a whole month. My “habit making process” has been taking me several months so far. I still struggle with it, but I noticed one change, it’s beginning to be forged into my mind. Like taking a shower, I wake up thinking about writing and that is good enough to care and schedule it. I know I’m going slow –  and sometimes I can only give it thirty minutes per day – but I feel that at least half-an-hour every single day will get me somewhere as opposed to no writing for the whole week.

Any other tips I can give? To support this habit, I’ve started to meditate. I honestly suggest it. It recharges you, and it’s the only time that you actually have for yourself. If you’re not good at this or don’t know how to start, you can take a look at the Calm App.

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Any other good tips for building a writing habit?

No rules for the writing process

I struggled a lot with my first project. I read many books on the writing process and even attended some courses on it. I tried to be as systematic as possible and write by the rules.  I learned valuable lessons and this helped me get through the process and finish my manuscript. However, I didn’t like the end result.

For this new second project, I started a couple of months ago, I tried to let it go and just be a pantser instead of a plotter. However as nice as it sounds to be a pantser, I also knew from my first experience, that there needed to be some infrastructure in the plot. Endless inspiration doesn’t take you to a perfect plot. And there are characters, my weakest point. The very reason why I let my first project remain dormant for the time being is that I ended not liking my characters at all. They needed and still need more development if I ever go back to that first project.

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In this second project, I had started writing as a pantser, letting the words and scenes come to my mind as I wrote, but then I reached a point (a couple of days ago) where I didn’t know where I was heading and if characters were being developed as I wanted. So I did something I avoided since I started writing. I stopped after more or less 35000 words and went back to the first page to review it slowly. I know the manuscript is not even in the middle and I have no clue yet where the story is heading yet, but I felt the need to go over what I have written so far to make sure the 35000 words made sense and that the characters didn’t suck. If you’ve gone through writing advice, classes, etc, you will hear that they don’t recommend this approach that much, that editing while still writing might not be the best. But I found out that it actually helps me. I’m in time to detect current plot failures and find opportunities for character development. Who knows, with this initial review, the plot might get a twist and a new rewrite. At this point, I wouldn’t mind the re-writing. I’m not that far in the story. Rewriting 35000 words doesn’t feel as bad as rewriting more than 100 000.

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This approach seems to work so far. Maybe it’s already suggested somewhere or maybe some other writers do something similar. I feel that it might the “thing” that works for me. I believe the purpose of getting experience with the writing process is to find your own path and your own method. My objective is that my first manuscript feels good. It doesn’t matter if I need to do a heavy editing after it. I just want to be able to feel that I’m telling a good story.

 

 

International Women’s Day

In case you haven’t seen this yet. A great example of women strength and perseverance!

The diaries of the happy loner

Everywhere you hear about how Women don’t have the same opportunities as men. And although there might be some truth in this and there is a lot still to fight in terms of wages equality and cultural biases,  I believe that “determination” is what makes an individual (regarding of Gender) successful or not. I wanted to share this inspiring video about a woman who summarizes a woman’s struggle to these words “courage and determination”.

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My new approach towards NaNoWriMo

I participated in my first NaNoWriMo a couple of years ago. It was an attempt to get my first manuscript out. At that point I didn’t have much experience in writing, I had a topic in mind but no plot or idea where my manuscript was going. I remember being delighted with the idea of writing two thousand words per day. I would be together with a whole community of writers, in the same position as me. I wouldn’t feel alone in the process. However, as I look back, I think that I was so worried about the daily goal, that I was giving more importance to its achievement than to the development of my manuscript story. I won NaNoWriMo that time (winning means writing 2000 words per day in all the month – an equivalent of 50 000 words of manuscript).  But as I look back, I would have liked  more time to develop this story.  I sort of rushed the plot into a story that I found myself not liking very much later. Right now, this manuscript is in standby, it has room for improvement. Perhaps it would have been finished by now if I had given more thought to its plot at that time.

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I didn’t participate in NaNoWriMo the next years. I don’t regret the first time either. It pushed me more into writing. I’ve passed from having the dream of one day wanting to write a novel to having a draft of a manuscript in a short time, something I thought it would never happened in my life.

However, this year I’m participating. I have a new story in mind. But my approach this year is different. In this month, I want to give as much thought and work as possible to my new story but without the daily goal of 2000 words per day. My objective is to make of this month a key month for my new manuscript, and I also want to feel that I’m participating in something bigger, with a whole community in the process.

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I’m focusing on writing with inspiration – I like this state of mind. The characters and story so far are nice and are exciting me. I’m no longer worried about having the story finished as soon as possible. I’m loving the process of discovering the story as I write. The process of discovering my own characters as the story continues. There is no goal per day. I write in the mornings before I start my job. I found out that this works for me. When I was doing the opposite, writing at the end of day, I was so tired and didn’t want to seat on the computer any longer in the evening. Now doing this in the early morning gives me a sense of replenishment and fullness that lets me start the day accomplishing one of my main goals in my life.