Business Writing Tip #75—The Secret of Good Writing

As a writer I read a lot. Much of what I read is about writing. Today I was reminded of some important things that I learnt about good writing from a master. William Zinsser is a US writer and On Writing Well is one of his best known books.On Writing Well

Today’s post is full of quotes from Zinsser. He said what he wanted to say so clearly there was no point me messing with it!

In this book Zinsser shares his secret of good writing:

“The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to the education and rank.”

In August 2009 Zinsser gave a talk to international students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism on “Writing English as a Second Language”. Whether English is your second language, your third, or your mother tongue, the four principles he described are sound. Check out his original article to read the examples he used to illustrate the points he was making.

 Principle One: Clarity

“If it’s not clear you might as well not write it. You might as well stay in bed.”

Principle Two: Simplicity

“Simple is good. Most students from other countries don’t know that. When I read them a sentence that I admire, a simple sentence with short words, they think I’m joking … Writing is not something you have to embroider with fancy stitches to make yourself look smart.”

Principle Three: Brevity

“Short is always better than long. Short sentences are better than long sentences. Short words are better than long words. Don’t say currently if you can say now. Don’t say assistance if you can say help. Don’t say numerous if you can say many. Don’t say facilitate if you can say ease. Don’t call someone an individual [five syllables!]; that’s a person, or a man or a woman. Don’t implement or prioritize. Don’t say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. Writing is talking to someone else on paper or on a screen.”

Principle Four: Humanity

“Be yourself. Never try in your writing to be someone you’re not. Your product, finally, is you. Don’t lose that person by putting on airs, trying to sound superior.”

Happy writing.


2 thoughts on “Business Writing Tip #75—The Secret of Good Writing

    • Glad it’s helpful Maxine. Of course, there is room for long sentences. Personally I like to try and use a variety of sentence lengths (the human brain likes variety!) If I know I am writing for an audience of mainly non-native speakers though I will usually use more shorter sentences. And when I write long sentences, I read them and re-read them, then re-read them again to make sure the meaning is clear. One aspect of the sentence that I always check is pronouns – are they close to the noun they are referring to? A regular source of errors in English is using pronouns in places where it’s not clear what they refer to.

      I quite like this example from the book English as She is Wrote (you can find this on the Project Gutenberg site).

      In the account of a shipwreck we find the following: “The captain swam
      ashore. So did the chambermaid; she was insured for a large sum and
      loaded with pig-iron.”

      Have a great weekend,

Add Your Feedback

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *