William Zinsser needs no introduction to writers. His book “On Writing Well” is one of the must have additions to your reading list if you aim to write well.
If you are a marketing copywriter, not reading this book would be akin to a medical student not having read a copy of Gray’s Anatomy- you would look like a newbie quack.
In no particular order here are 10 lessons that I took away from a first reading. I am sure that I can easily write 25 more points when I come back and revisit this book later.
1. KISS: Keep it short and simple
Brevity is at the core of Zinsser’s writing philosophy. The use of every word has to be justified and wherever possible, less should be done with more.
This nugget of advice is especially important when you are writing to sell something online, what with the extremely short attention spans of readers.
An overuse of abbreviations, jargons and clichés is the easiest way to ensure that you bore your readers and make them click elsewhere. The first two are as sneaky as pickpockets, especially when your copywriting niche is something like B2B IT.
Eternal vigilance is the price of persuasive copywriting.
2. Be obsessive about your word choices
Since words are all that a writer has to persuade readers Zinsser emphasises on the need to use appropriate words. For instance, one single word in the subject line is all it takes to shoot the open rates of an email through the roof.
Even when you have chosen the right words their relative order of placement is also important. Would “hearty and hale” cut the mustard? Does a “friend family” make the same sense as a “family friend”?
Another evidence of the power of words are the power words-words used in headlines to strike an emotional chord with the reader.
Words matter in real life, and they matter even more in copy.
3. The thesaurus is your friend
This point follows from the previous one. You need an extensive stock of words, and the human brain can hold only so much information before being overwhelmed. Enter the thesaurus.
A good writer is never far from a thesaurus. If you don’t have a tome like Roget’s Thesaurus which Zinsser highly recommends use a free online thesaurus like http://thesaurus.com/.
A thesaurus comes in handy when you need to repeat a word but don’t want to bore your readers.It is also a lifesaver in cases where you just can’t find that perfect word to fit into the sentence or you need an adjective or an adverb to make the paragraph sing.
4. Begin with a bang, end with a boom
Nothing catches reader attention like a snappy headline. But if your first few lines are limp even the most catchy headline won’t matter a damn.
There is also an art to knowing when you need to stop. A perfect ending is when the message of your piece stays with your readers even after they have stopped reading. Zinsser says it best:
For the nonfiction writer,…if you have presented all the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the nearest exit.
5. Never lose the logical flow of sentences
This is writing 101-for the entire piece to make sense every sentence must be built upon the premise of the preceding one. Random jumps in the narrative confuse readers and that is never good when your aim is to be persuasive.
To maintain the flow you have to plan ahead before typing. Another of Zinsser’s tips is that the final draft should have an uniform tone, tense or person. Switching from a formal to a casual tone, jumping between first to third person or writing in both present and past tense is a definite no-no.
6. Rewrite multiple times, and read aloud
If you are aiming to persuade someone with your writing you HAVE to rewrite. First drafts always suck, and the readability of a written piece is directly proportional to the number of rewrites it has gone through.
But don’t stop at mindless rewrites. The human brain is wired to hear the words that the eyes are reading. Read out each sentence until everything sounds right.
Zinsser advocates using tools like rhythm and alliteration to make your writing more ear friendly. If you want an ( over the top) example this one from V for Vendetta should do
Voilà! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished.
However, this valorous visitation of a bygone vexation stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition! The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous.
Verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose, so let me simply add that it’s my very good honour to meet you and you may call me “V”.
7. Think in paragraphs
According to Zinsser paragraphs are not simply a block of text- they must convey a single logical thought. If a paragraph seems to contain more than a single idea it needs to be broken up
While paragraphs can be as long as needed to get the message across he lobbies for short paragraphs. This point is very critical especially when you are writing for the web- long block of texts scare away readers like a firework display scares household pets.
Whitespace is your faithful friend online.
8. Cut out adjectives and adverbs
When it comes to non-fiction Zinsser hates redundant adjectives and adverbs like a little kid hates boiled vegetables. He is dead set against using adverbs when all they do is take up space- blared loudly, clench tightly, effortlessly easy, grinned widely.
In the same vein he would give probably give a F if he saw phrases like yellow daffodils, lacy spiderwebs, precipitous cliffs and tall skyscrapers. Readers don’t need the adjectives to describe such nouns- cliffs are usually precipitous and there are no two storied skyscrapers.
You are cool if you write grey skies and black clouds, though.
9. Don’t beat around the bush
Most of us use a number of expressions in our writing that weakens the impact of our overall message. I am looking at “decidedly” and “arguably”. And also at “a bit”, “a little”, ”too”, “sort of”, “kind of”, “rather”,”quite”,”very”,”pretty much” and “in a sense”.
Using these qualifiers repeatedly reminds readers of a spiel by a shifty salesman. They don’t let you develop any emotional connection with your audience and worse, makes you sound doubtful of what you are selling.
The rule is not to dump them altogether. These qualifiers might sometimes be useful in the interests of accuracy. But don’t use them like you would use “a”,”an” and “the”.
Boldness is always #WIN.
10. Keep lines at unequal length
Have you ever managed to stay awake and attentive when listening to a person who speaks in a monotone? If you don’t vary the length of your sentences you are inflicting the same torture on your readers.
Zinsser has one rule about sentence length- unless you are a literary genius the period can’t come soon enough. Writing long sentences increases the chances of you screwing up and making a mistake.
Besides, short sentences deliver a punch.
So this is what you are going to do
Here is the deal- tell me in the comments how many rules have I broken in this post. All reasonable edits would be credited and the offending fragment will be scratched out, but not deleted.
Bring out the red pens!