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?

When writing is only about writing

To be honest, I’d been stuck with my manuscript for months already. Recently, I wrote how I planned to practically start over from scratch. At the end, I decided to take a similar approach, go over it but not with editing eyes (I’ve edited those sentences so many times that I didn’t know if I was actually improving them or making them worse) but read it critically, plotwise, characterwise. I felt that my biggest weakness was character development, I felt them flat. That is why I choose a very good advice from my blog friend Glynis in “Productive or Busy” (who also took it from her friend Shari) about writing separately several character pages (not necessarily related to the plot but their life story in general) to get a feeling of the characters. I loved the idea and started doing this on my current manuscript.

As soon as I started just writing, I got those chills you have when inspiration hits you and you just start typing endlessly, feeling the flow of the words. I love this state. I know I don’t do my best writing from the grammatical/structure point of view, the writing is rather awful, but I get to release all the feelings and everything I feel should be put to paper.

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After this cool experience, I had to go for a fanfiction story. I know being a geek has led me to write fanfiction stories before. This is a weird path for writing since fanfiction involves writing about characters that have already been created, but it is still writing and I had to do it. It felt so liberating that I thought that I was finally rediscovering my writing spirit again. The fan fiction story only awoke my inner writing muse. This was a one time short story and it is already finished, and I don’t plan to revisit the world of fanfiction for a while, however this process has stirred the desire that I’ve been having for some time to start a new story, for leaving my manuscript resting for a while, and just start telling this new story that has been doing circles in my head.

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I realized that I might not be the first one. I’m pretty sure several writers have jumped to a different work and left others to rest for a while.  So I’ve started writing a new manuscript for a week already. I’ve been doing it daily (which wasn’t happening with my other writing) and I feel excited about it, ideas are flowing to my mind and I feel happy. I still plan to revisit my previous manuscript’s character pages since that aside process was been going well, but I feel like this new writing has strengthened and invigorated my new writing spirit.

And you, has it ever happened to you that you started writing other projects without finishing others? Do you think it is a good idea?

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TED Talk: How boredom can lead to your most brilliant ideas

Manoush Zomorodi talks about a developed app-experiment that challenges its users to be “Bored and Briliant”.

As writers, we suffer from time to time from “writer’s block”. We find ourselves “procrastinating” and using/losing time only to check emails, social media and so on. Suddenly we find ourselves out of “ideas” or far from of a clear mind to write. The following talk might give you a different perspective:

 

What do you think about this talk? Do you think you can find writing inspiration during your bored times?

Is it time to start the manuscript from scratch?

It has been several months since I haven’t posted a blog post. And today was the day that I decided I would not go to bed until I finally did it. Work and travel are the excuses in general – and I won’t go to discuss them more since I want to jump into blogging pools as soon as possible without lamenting why I didn’t blog these months.

My manuscript continues to be a manuscript. However, it seems it was for the best. After going through multiple reviews and editing rounds, I decided it needs a complete makeover. The story is nice, the theme topic is interesting, but it is not the book that I think it could be. I’ve struggled so much to keep the same characters and to bring to life all situations in the book, but I reached a point where I need to acknowledge that my characters might not strong enough, neither interesting enough and some situations feel awkward and forced into the plot. Maybe leaving the manuscript to rest for a long time was a good idea after all.

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At this point, I’m not completely sure how to target this. Should I work on revamping the book, adjusting situations, and changing the characters over the existing framework, or just start from scratch?

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Starting from scratch sounds good, but if I were to start a new complete book, then why insist on this “theme topic”? I have a couple of other better theme topics to explore. However, I cannot simply give up almost two years invested on this manuscript. Somehow, deep inside, I still want to rescue it and rescue all the time invested in it.

I guess I relate to this:

Have you experienced something similar? Any Advice?

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