The Final Advantage

After months of reading, I have finished William Zinsser’s affectionate guide: On Writing Well. I’ve learned more about writing from this book than any other single source. I’ve also been entertained and moved to tears along the way. That dual quality, reflects Zinsser, “seems to me to be a good day’s work.”

I will never truly be finished with Zinsser and his legacy; as I start projects in the future I’m sure I’ll keep him nearby for regular reference. This book is truly a guide in the most relatable of ways: Zinsser’s voice takes you on a journey and never leaves your side. Here are a few of the many annotated, starred, and underlined bits that charmed me along the way:

“Clutter is the official language used by corporations to hide their mistakes.”

“Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.”

“Nouns now turn overnight into verbs.”

“Our daily landscape is thick with absurd messages and portents. Notice them.”

“Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.”

“You’ll find the solution if you look for the human element.”

“She wrote well because she was a clear thinker and had a passion for her subject.”

“We are suspicious of pretentiousness, of all the fad words that the social scientists have coined to avoid making themselves clear to ordinary mortals. I urge you to be natural. How we write and how we talk is how we define ourselves.”

“Criticism is the stage on which journalists do their fanciest strutting.”

“This heightening of some crazy truth—to a level where it will be seen as crazy—is the essence of what serious humorists are trying to do.”

“Taste chooses words that have surprise, strength and precision.”

“We are a culture that worships the winning result: the league championship, the high test score. Coaches are paid to win, teachers are valued for getting students into the best colleges. Less glamorous gains made along the way—learning, wisdom, growth, confidence, dealing with failure—aren’t given the same respect because they can’t be given a grade.”

“Moral: any time you can tell a story in the form of a quest or a pilgrimage you’ll be ahead of the game.”

“One of the saddest sentences I know is “I wish I had asked my mother about that. Or my father. Or my grandmother. Or my grandfather.”

“Writers are the custodians of memory.”

“But the final advantage is the same one that applies in every other competitive venture. If you would like to write better than everybody else, you have to want to write better than everybody else.”

“A good editor likes nothing better than a piece of copy he hardly has to touch. A bad editor has a compulsion to tinker, proving with busywork that he hasn’t forgotten the minutia of grammar and usage. He is a literal fellow, catching the cracks in the road but not enjoying the scenery. Very often it simply doesn’t occur to him that a writer is writing by ear, trying to achieve a particular sound or cadence, or playing with words just for the pleasures of wordplay.”

“You will write only as well as you make yourself write.”

2 responses to “The Final Advantage

  1. I have the book on my shelf and I remember really liking the sections I read but I only used it as reference. Reading your post makes me want to curl up in an armchair and read cover to cover. I gotta remember to put it on my list of rereads. Thanks for sharing!

    • Definitely! I had it on my shelf for over three years before I even opened it. It’s such a worthwhile read. One of my colleague also recommended another book by him for me to read next, Writing to Learn.

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