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A Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Guide to William Zinsser’s On Writing Well for Aspiring Writers, Writers, and Non-Writers

I’m not a proud complainer, but I’ll complain to anyone who will listen that most nonfiction can and should be distilled to a five- or—maybe—ten-page flier, brochure, or leaflet.

By contrast, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction could, with no apologies, be expanded to a 500-page bible of writing technique. And then, to emphasize its biblical pedigree in the mind of many modern writers, printed on the finest available onionskin.

The pedigree is well-earned. I’ve been saved.

That’s why, in tradition with my previous “book notes”-style blog posts, I’ve created a 13-page On Writing Well checklist to inspire and equip all would-be Zinsserites. But this PDF is not a review. Nor is it a summary. It’s an actionable checklist that any writer, aspiring writer, or non-writer will find useful as a reference point for what makes good writing good.

And while the goal of strengthening my craft and helping others do the same is what motivated this project, there’s an even stronger force driving me to publish.

I’ve been writing a lot on this blog and on various social media platforms about freedom of speech and freedom of thought. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I am concerned with a creeping trend toward totalitarianism on the world political stage. In his recent essay The Threat of Tyranny, author Michael Meade helped me pinpoint this fear:

When the highly presumptive nominee states that: ‘We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it… certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country…’ he is preparing the ground for tyranny and usurping powers that not only diminish democracy, but also defile human decency and dignity. The real ‘binary choice’ is between tyranny and democracy.

And, although Zinsser steers away from the rocky shores of social commentary, I was often reminded as I read that we have a daily choice to make between hands-on violence and communication. Communication is, after all, a defining feature of a civilized society. The alternative is true barbarism.

Writing, as Zinsser emphasizes, helps us to clarify our thinking. But it also helps us to join with other thinkers in conversations that evolve our thinking.

And that’s a form of salvation that most of us seem eager for.

You can download the checklist by clicking here.

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Here’s an excerpt from the section on conducting interviews:

Interviewing

Prepare thoroughly:

  • Do research on the subject and context.
  • Make a list of likely questions—and be ready to leave it behind.

Write, don’t record:

  • Don’t record; write things down.
  • Only record where it’s critical that you maintain cultural integrity (i.e., of words, phrases, details).
  • If needed, ask people to “Stop, hold on a minute” while you catch up.
  • Develop a personal shorthand.
  • When interview is over, go back and fill in the missing words.
  • When you get home, type out your notes so you can read them easily.

Connect things and organize:

  • Single out important and colorful sentences.
  • Connect sentences as needed (even if they aren’t sequential). Stay true to what was said (not necessarily order).
  • Add words if needed, or feel free to call the interviewee to clarify.
  • Write a lead that tells readers why the person is worth reading about.

Write the interview in a way that balances his words with your writing:

  • Start sentences with quotes, don’t lead up (no “Mr. Smith said…”).
  • Don’t strain to find synonyms for “he said” (only “he added”, “he replied”, “he explained).
  • You can use imagined dialogue and emotion but don’t invent opinions or guess what people “might have said”.

Click here to download the checklist.