Book review: ‘Writing to Learn’ by William Zinsser

The best way to find out if you understand something is to write about it.

‘Writing to Learn’ by William Zinsser

I came to this book having very much enjoyed the late William Zinsser‘s earlier book On Writing Well. He was preaching to the converted, as far as I was concerned: keep your writing simple, respect the intelligence of your readers, use short words and sentences, drop the adverbs, and so on. Obvious and easy enough in theory; difficult, of course; to pull off in practice.

Writing to Learn is an equally excellent book from this self-confessed ‘clarity nut’. It covers similar ground to On Writing Well, but comes with an interesting slant:

we write to find out what we know and what we want to say.

The book is packed full of sound advice on writing clearly about factual topics. In so doing, Zinsser explains, you help not only your readers, but also yourself understand complex issues and seemingly impenetrable subjects. Trying to write clearly on such topics also gives you insights into what you really think about them:

Reduce your discipline—whatever it is—to a logical sequence of clearly thought sentences. You will thereby make it clear not only to other people but to yourself. You will find out whether you know your subject as well as you thought you did. If you don’t, writing will show you where the holes are in your knowledge or your reasoning.

This is excellent stuff, illustrated with well-chosen examples of clear writing on ‘difficult’ topics. But, let’s face it, anyone who praises Charles Darwin’s ‘unendingly rich’ The Voyage of the Beagle for ‘its accounts of animals, birds and the whole panoply of natural life that I could quote from any of its five hundred pages’ was always going to get a glowing review from this Darwin groupie.

An excellent book, recommended to all factual writers.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

Richard Carter

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Website · Facebook · Twitter · Newsletter · Book

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