10 tips from the author of ‘On Writing Well’

Words, sentences, paragraphs: Simply assembling them is not enough. Follow these guidelines to electrify your copywriting.


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, your ignoring this book would be akin to a medical student’s 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 of Zinsser’s book. I am sure that I will easily be able to write 25 more points after revisiting it.

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, more should be done with less.

This advice is especially important when you are writing to sell something online, given the extremely short attention spans of readers.

An overuse of abbreviations, jargon, and clichés is the easiest way to ensure that you will 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. Obsess over word choices.

Because words are all a writer has to persuade readers, Zinsser emphasizes the need for 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 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”?

Further evidence of the power of words lies in the power words: words used in headlines to strike an emotional chord in 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 without being overwhelmed. Enter the thesaurus.

If you don’t have a tome like Roget’s Thesaurus, which Zinsser highly recommends, use a free online thesaurus such as http://thesaurus.com/.

A thesaurus comes in handy when you need to repeat a thought but don’t want to repeat a given word. It is also a life saver when you just can’t find that perfect term 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 catchiest 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 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 preceding one. Random jumps in the narrative confuse readers, and that is never good when you aim to persuade.

To maintain the flow, plan before typing. Another of Zinsser’s tips is that the final draft should have a uniform tone, tense, or person. Switching from a formal to a casual tone, jumping between first and third person, or writing in both present and past tense is a definite no-no.

6. Rewrite multiple times, and read aloud.

If you aim to persuade with your writing, you must rewrite. First drafts always suck, and the readability of a piece is directly proportional to the number of rewrites it has gone through.

But don’t commit mindless rewrites. The human brain is wired to hear the words that the eyes are reading. Read each sentence aloud until everything sounds right.

Zinsser advocates using techniques 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 blocks 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.

Although paragraphs can be as long as needed to get the message across, he lobbies for short paragraphs. This point is crucial, especially when you are writing for the Web; long blocks of text scare away readers just as a fireworks display scares household pets.

White space is your faithful friend online.

8. Cut out adjectives and adverbs.

When it comes to nonfiction, Zinsser hates redundant adjectives and adverbs just as a little kid hates boiled vegetables. He is dead set against using adverbs when all they do is take up space: blare loudly, clench tightly, grin widely.

In the same vein, he would give probably give an F if he saw phrases such as yellow daffodils, lacy spider webs, precipitous cliffs, and tall skyscrapers. Readers don’t need the adjectives to describe such nouns; cliffs are invariably precipitous, and there are no two-story skyscrapers.

You are cool if you write gray skies and black clouds, though.

9. Don’t beat around the bush.

Most of us use a number of expressions in our writing that weaken the impact of our overall message. I am looking at “decidedly” and “arguably,” and at “a bit,” “a little,” “too,” “sort of,” “kind of,” “rather,” “quite,” “very,” “pretty much,” and “in a sense.”

Repeatedly using such qualifiers reminds readers of a spiel by a shifty salesman. They don’t let you develop any emotional connection with your audience; worse, they make you sound doubtful about what you are selling.

The rule is not that you should dump them altogether. These qualifiers might sometimes be useful in the interest of accuracy, but don’t use them as you would use “a,” “an,” and “the.”

Boldness wins.

10. Vary sentence length.

Have you ever struggled to stay 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 your making a mistake.

Besides, short sentences deliver a punch.

Bhaskar Sarma is a B2B content marketer and copywriter at Pixels and Clicks. He works in the enterprise IT niche and creates content that is shareable, informative and tells the interesting stories behind dry and technical products. A version of this article first appeared in the Pixels and Clicks blog.

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