Good Writing

E. B. White (1899 – 1977) at age 77, writing in the boathouse of his home in Maine.

I learned most of what I know about writing from two books: William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style, and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction.


William Zinsser (1922 – 2015 ) age 86, writing in his Manhattan office.

From Strunk and White I learned the essence of good writing in three sentences:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that [writers] make all [their] sentences short, or that [they] avoid all detail and treat [their] subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

From Zinsser I learned the process of good writing from sentences like these : 

Good writing doesn’t come naturally, though most people seem to think it does … 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.

I also learned a lot about writing from a graduate school mentor, William B. Charron. He made me rewrite my master’s thesis about ten times. Literally! The process was laborious, but the end product was carefully and conscientiously crafted—all of its chapters were published in peer-reviewed professional journals. He pored over my every word with diligence, and my writing was the beneficiary. I thank him.

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9 thoughts on “Good Writing

  1. I have a ton of factual stuff I want to write about, but I can see it is an enormous task as it involves collecting facts, examining them, etc…
    Bertrand Russell’s words roam my mind: “I had written my ten pages for the day.”.
    I’ll check out the books you mention. Thanks for your article.

  2. Liked it? Yes I did like it Dr. John and I thank you for sharing this wisdom with me!

  3. The greatest influences on my writing were Will Durant’s “The Story of Civilization” and Henry Kissinger’s books. These two writers impressed me greatly. I will never be as good a writer as Durant.

  4. Durant and Russell are the two best writers I’ve ever read. I think E.O. Wilson is also very good as was Stephen J Gould.

  5. A writer was asked if he found writing very difficult: he looked the interviewer in the eye and said writing was preferable to working for a living.
    Seriously, I never liked that old fashioned Hemingway attitude. Not to dismiss a writer being a Real Man, and writing about it to make a book or article interesting. But for a Hemingway
    to prove his manhood in every book and piece, to drink eleven Remy Martins and harpoon a big fish while waterskiing—and then publicly bragging about it—smacks of insecurity. Of making a Big Deal of oneself by acting-out.

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