On Writing Well - 4 Principles all Writers Need to Know

I recently finished On Writing Well by William Zinsser, and I had a few a-ha moments while reading that I wanted to share.

1. Every person has their own method and process. “Some people write by day, others by night. Some people need silence; others turn on the radio. Some write by hand, some by computer, some by talking into a tape recorder. Some people write their first draft in one long burst and then revise, others can’t write the second paragraph until they have fiddled endlessly with the first” (Chapter 1, page 5).

I love this idea of every writer having their own personal method because I know it to be true. I have never met anyone who writes like me. I write best when I have a few hours of uninterrupted time to be creative and focus on organizing my thoughts. For me, this is usually at night. We all know how most classrooms operate when it comes to writing. Every student is required to complete a certain number of drafts, paragraphs, sources, peer revisions, etc. Teachers enforce these requirements for a good reason - so that students can learn how to organize their writing. Readers should look for sentences where students are going off-script and succeeding or failing. These are the sentences where coaching should begin. Try to find ways to acknowledge the student’s unique method.

2. Simplicity. “But 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” (Chapter 2, page 6).

Most of the writing our students see throughout their daily lives is clotted with words and phrases that sound important. When it comes to their own writing, it is not surprising that they use inflated language because they think it sounds “good” or “intelligent”. They forget that superfluous language doesn’t engage readers. If the reader can’t understand what the message is the first time they read the writing, the writer has failed the reader. As a writing coach, it is your duty to show writers where they can simplify their ideas.

3. Who am I writing for? “It’s a fundamental question, and it has a fundamental answer: You are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience – every reader is a different person” (Chapter 5, page 3).  

Most students are writing for their teachers and it is important to be conscientious of that fact. Since you are not their teacher, can you differentiate when they are writing for their teacher versus themselves? 

4. The secret to good writing is re-writing. “Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard” (Chapter 2, page 9).

For me, this was the most reassuring line of the entire book. I always thought my need to re-write was a weakness until I read those sentences. I am re-writer to the extreme. I re-write e-mails, texts, blog posts, letters, thank you cards, status updates – everything. Many students will shut down when they receive constructive feedback, especially if it is terse and unspecific. They think re-writing = bad writing. Writing coaches need to frame all feedback with the idea that “re-writing is the secret to good writing” and teach students to crave it.

By: Becca Lett, Member Success Manager at The Graide Network.