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On Writing Well by William Zinsser is a guide to the principles of good non-fiction writing.

Zinsser lays out the fundamental tenets of good non-fiction writing, providing actionable methods for improving the clarity of your writing and keeping your audience engaged.

The book is primarily aimed at authors writing non fiction articles published on the internet as well as day to day correspondence with colleagues and stakeholders. It is important to note that some of the advice in the book may not translate as well for more formal settings.

Who Should Read it?

Anyone who writes anything for work.

Why should developers or data scientists consider reading a book about writing? Well, as someone who hated English at school, I was sceptical at first too.

The further I have got in my career, the more I have realised how just how important written communication is to be an effective data scientist. Communicating analysis outputs concisely and precisely to different stakeholders is challenging.

“Countless careers rise or fall on the ability or the inability of employees to state a set of facts, summarize a meeting or present an idea coherently. […] Remember that what you write is often the only chance you’ll get to present yourself to someone whose business or money or good will you need.”

Writing is a skill that is taken for granted and is incredibly difficult to do well. Yes, you learn how to write essays and analyse literature at school. But beyond high school, writing is generally not a skill that is given dedicated time to improving.

Top Quotes

“You learn to write by writing”

“Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all”

“Countless careers rise or fall on the ability or the inability of employees to state a set of facts, summarize a meeting or present an idea coherently. […] Remember that what you write is often the only chance you’ll get to present yourself to someone whose business or money or good will you need.”

Key Takeaways

Be Concise, Remove Clutter

“The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components”.

Examine every word you put on paper. A good exercise to reduce clutter is to put brackets around every component in a sentence that isn’t doing useful work. You will be surprised how many words don’t serve a purpose.

Similar to refactoring code, writing should be seen as an iterative process. You won’t get it perfect on the first try. Your first draft allows you to better understand the topic and flow of words. With this gained understanding you can improve the original.

People engage with personalities

“Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself”

Adding personal touches that your audience can relate to will make your writing more engaging. Write to your audience as you would speak to them. It will sound more genuine.

You don’t find your niche; your niche finds you

“You learn by writing”

You don’t need to think of your audience ahead of time. Just write on topics you find interesting. Overtime, your audience will find you.

The wonder of the internet is that you can write about any niche and your audience of like minded people will come to you. With feedback from your growing audience, you can refine the themes, topics and niches you write on.

The first step, however, is to start writing.

Writing is hard work.

In school you are told which topics to write on, rarely were you given the chance to write freely.

Writing on topics you aren’t interested in is tough and not enjoyable. Experiences of writing from school often leaves people, myself included, with a lasting impression that writing is a painful process, paralysed by boredom on the topic. This discourages writing after graduating.

Start writing on the things you find interesting. What you learned at work today. Share your thoughts on that book you just read.

You will learn what works as you go along.

You aren’t writing for your English teacher anymore

At school, we are taught how to write ‘proper and correct’ English for formal essays and reports.

While there is a place for formality, it very rarely is required (or optimal) in day to day written communication. Adding fancy words and using complex sentence structures can actually reduce readability and make it harder for the reader to understand what you are trying to say.

For example, I’ve had a phobia of starting sentences with ‘But’, using contractions (e.g. I’ll, We’ll, don’t etc.) or using dashes mid-sentence. But these can be extremely useful tools for adding personality to your writing and keeping audiences engaged with clever use of syntax.

Another example is keeping paragraphs short.

Perhaps even a single sentence long.

As Monica Lent says in her Blogging for Devs Email Course : “The Internet Skims”

In the age of the internet, we are assailed by many forces competing for attention. Your article, email, report is competing for attention. People have become accustomed to skim reading content to filter out the noise. You have a matter of seconds to keep the reader’s attention.

Breaking your content into small, actionable paragraphs helps the reader orientate themselves and understand the contents before investing more time in a more thorough reading.

Stay focused. Take the reader with you

“Readers can process only one idea at a time, and they do it in a linear sequence”

Make sure you keep the scope of a paragraph or article to one new topic at once. It should be clear what the reader will get out of reading the article from the start.

When writing on technical subjects it is important to set the required knowledge expectations for the article. Start from the base assumptions and walk your way up, taking the reader along with you.

“Your readers will understand the broad implications only if they start with one narrow fact they can relate to”

Further Reading