Friday, May 29, 2015

On writing well

The WSJ notable and quotable picked a lovely snippet from “On Writing Well” (1976) by William Zinsser, who died May 12 at age 92. 
Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon. 
Who can understand the clotted language of everyday American commerce: the memo, the corporate report, the business letter, the notice from the bank explaining its latest “simplified” statement? What member of an insurance plan can decipher the brochure explaining the costs and benefits? What father or mother can put together a child’s toy from the instructions on the box? Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important. The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating experiencing considerable precipitation wouldn’t think of saying it may rain. The sentence is too simple—there must be something wrong with it. 
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 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 education and rank.
Though each sentence is spare,  Zinsser includes some long and concrete lists. Notice how effective that combination is.

From the New York Times Obituary
His advice was straightforward: Write clearly. Guard the message with your life. Avoid jargon and big words. Use active verbs. Make the reader think you enjoyed writing the piece. 
He conveyed that himself with lively turns of phrase: 
“There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough,” ... 
“Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill rode to glory on the back of the strong declarative sentence,” ..
Zinsser's book was an inspiration to me.  I highly recommend it to economists and PhD students. (My reading list for a PhD writing workshop.)

Measure your time. You may think you're a social scientist, but in fact you're a writer.


  1. While I am a great fan of Zinsser's book, I actually found your late colleague's Joseph Williams' Ten Lessons in Style and Grace to be more useful.

  2. Zinsser is right, but his advice is nothing new: consider the exercise where you edit a sign marked: "Fresh Fish Sold Here" (hint: the solution is one word).

    (Answer below)


    Drop the "here": that's what the sign is for. Drop the "sold": we're not giving the fish away. Drop the "fresh", of course it's fresh!

    Final sign: "Fish".

    1. Fish is both a noun and a verb. Suppose your sign is next to a pier - a reasonable assumption since the freshest fish are sold right off your boat. You awake the next day to find 50 men line up along the pier with fishing lines cast off into the water.

  3. He has very good advices in the book. I sometimes wonder about the causality, though. In my own experience with writing, and from reading many student essays, I suspect that cluttered writing is a symptom of a cluttered soul (= deep unconscious) Most notably, when you live a life against your heart (= deepest desires) you tend to be undecided and faltering in your actions and your writing ... I could be wrong or simply biased on this matter though :)

  4. "these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence."

    He breaks about 4 of his rules with this one phrase.

    1. Anonymous,

      "these are examples of elements that weaken a sentence"

      Rule 1 - Eliminate every word that serves no function - hence remove "strength of", if you weaken something, then obviously it is going to lose strength

      Rule 2 - Eliminate every long word that could be a short word - hence substitute "element" for adulterant.

      Rule 3 - Eliminate every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb - no broken rule here

      Rule 4 - Eliminate every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure who is doing what - no broken rule here

      Rule 5 - Eliminate logical contradictions. He listed four examples, but called them "the thousand and one" adulterants.

      Rule 6 - Eliminate hyperbole / exaggerations. Again, he didn't list a thousand and one examples, only four. Also, referring to example offenses as adulterants may sound catchy, but is also an exaggeration and somewhat dated. Adultery doesn't carry the stigma that it once did.

  5. "Write clearly. Guard the message with your life. Avoid jargon and big words. Use active verbs. Make the reader think you enjoyed writing the piece. "

    Also, avoid mathematical equations and geometric gadgets, or put them in a technical appendix. Their unnecessary use also obscures clarity by introducing artificial construct needed to support them.

  6. This reminds me of the contests to see who can write the most compact C++ code. Fads come and go. There will come a day when the stark utilitarian style advocated here will be rejected. Up until the early 1920s scientific writing eschewed the passive voice. Now it's the standard.

    One of the best writers I ever knew was John Bruner, an anesthesiologist in Boston. When I was a resident I loved reading his notes in the chart. I will never forget how one consult started: "This is a 60 year old gentleman of charm and fame . . ." instead of "60 YOWM". Originally trained as an engineer, he wrote a wonderful little book on blood pressure monitoring that was worth reading if only to enjoy his style. In the introduction Jack wrote, "The avoidance of editorial bias has not been one of my goals". Sure, you can clean that up but would you enjoy reading "This text includes editorial bias" quite as much?

    Some day the wheel will turn again and it will be fashionable to write sentences that are fun to read and not stripped down to the bare bones.

    As for the "fish" example, let's imagine two fish stands. One has a sign that says "Fish" and the other's sign says "Fresh Fish". Which one gets your first perusal?

    In the meantime can someone clean up this mess:

    When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

    1. In a supermarket - fresh fish beats frozen fish. At a seaside fish market, I would presume them to mean the same thing.

    2. Would you "presume" something in a business transaction? Why not show your intestines the same consideration? I'll be at the fresh fish stand. ;-)

      Shouldn't the supermarket example be "Fish" not "Frozen Fish?

      Words have power and i hate to see them watered down or shoved to the wayside. Although I agree with much of what's been said (see my online petition to the White House to ban the word "utilize") I think we're doing to language what we've already done to architecture - stripped away any adornment that doesn't serve the primary function.

    3. JB,

      My point was that in a supermarket environment, the "fresh" connotation adds meaning since both fresh and frozen fish can be sold there. At a seaside fish market, a valid assumption is that the fish being sold are fresh. But I think you understand what I was trying to say.

      Obviously, context and intended audience play a crucial role in deciding how to write.

    4. My initial reaction to those signs would be, "How come the other guy isn't advertising his fish as being fresh?" I guess we've identified who's the optimist and who's the pessimist here.

      It would be an interesting social experiment to see which fish stand attracted more shoppers. It reminds me of the experiments Dan Ariely does. My bet is that the fish stand with the added info would get more shoppers.

      Context-based assumption can be a life-threatening mistake, like asking a woman with a protuberant belly if she's pregnant since she's sitting in the lobby of a maternity ward. Actually, one should never ask that question unless there are visible baby parts hanging out.

  7. Thoughts on this alternate take?

    1. "For 'tis the sport to have the enginer
      Hoist with his own petard"

      I also liked the linked post at


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