I recently finished reading the latest edition—the 30th anniversary edition—of “On Writing Well,” by William Zinsser. After Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style” it is perhaps the most influential book on writing non-fiction of the 20th century. And it is the book that made me think that maybe, just maybe, writing non-fiction could be as interesting as writing fiction.
I’ve tried to re-read Zinsser’s book every five to 10 years, and each time I do I feel like the boy who cleaned Michelangelo’s brushes. I may be using the master’s tools, but I’m nowhere near the master’s level—nor ever will be.
But Zinsser’s advice is so apt for the kind of writing that we do for our clients. Zinsser is one of the great proponents of the minimalist writing school. He famously said, “Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.”
Here at Ellcom, we live by that advice every day. We know that too many words will obscure our client’s message, not clarify it. Unnecessary detail will drive the reader away, while a compact, contextual narrative will draw the reader in to our client’s story and leave a positive impression.
It is much more difficult to be concise than to be wordy. And we don’t make things easy on ourselves.
Zinnser, who has been writing since 1946 and to this day practices and teaches his craft, also recognizes the difficulty of wrangling a herd of words until you get them to say what you want them to say.
My favorite quote from the latest edition of “On Writing Well” is his comment on the fact that, unlike fiction writers, non-fiction writers are beholden to the literal truth. He says, “Non-fiction writers…are infinitely accountable: to the facts, to the people they interviewed, to the locale of their story and to the events that happened there. They are also accountable to their craft and all its perils of excess and disorder: losing the reader, confusing the reader, not keeping the reader engaged from beginning to end.”
This is a responsibility that the staff writers at Ellcom take very seriously. And if you’d like to learn more about the craft of writing, I can recommend no other book so unreservedly as “On Writing Well.”