William Zinsser's On Writing Well was a healthy dose of affirmation and encouragement in this regards; the first writing book I've ever finished and could recommend.
From the Amazon description: On Writing Well has been praised for its sound advice, its clarity and the warmth of its style. It is a book for everybody who wants to learn how to write or who needs to do some writing to get through the day, as almost everybody does in the age of e-mail and the Internet.
Whether you want to write about people or places, science and technology, business, sports, the arts or about yourself in the increasingly popular memoir genre, On Writing Well offers you fundamental principles as well as the insights of a distinguished writer and teacher. With more than a million copies sold, this volume has stood the test of time and remains a valuable resource for writers and would-be writers.
On Writing Well has many editions, but for the purposes of today's review I will be drawing directly from the 30th edition.
William Zinsser started writing on the typewriter and has seen the rise of computers, change in trends, and shifts in people's interests throughout his career. His book of advice, On Writing Well, stands out as a gem; for it is the advice of a man who is not basing his teaching on the latest fads or encouraging people to follow the market. He gives writers classic principles that will stand true time immemorial.
That doesn't mean his advice is surface-level, or fluffy. On the contrary, his common sense is refreshing, simply because we don't get it any more. Writers nowadays hear a clash of "Use adverbs." "Don't use adverbs." "Start with action." "Start with character empathy." The whiplash from what sells is confusing. Zinsser cuts through all the confusion simply by ignoring it and focusing on what really matters: interesting content, distinctive voice, and clean prose; the three vital components to any writing project.
On Writing Well is toted as "The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction", but don't let that subtitle deceive you. It's a book that any writer should read, whether you write memoir or science fiction. The principles of good writing hold true across the genres. Besides; any writer is going to have to write non-fiction at some point in the form of magazine articles and blog posts, and it doesn't hurt to learn what works in the industry.
One refreshing thing about Zinsser's writing is that he's morally clean. Some writing books like Donald Maas's Writing the Breakout Novel use examples of modern-day novels with more explicit content than I want to know about. Zinsser is clean, classic, and refined. He doesn't require shock value and edgy writing to get his point across. He writes in a family-friendly style, and barring 3 passages of my recollection, I would read the book aloud to the family.
Zinsser does have a few drawbacks to look out for. Occasionally he includes a swear word, though fairly mild as I recall. Here and there I detect a hint of religious cynicism. Also, he spends a good chunk of a chapter on how 'sexism' should be removed from nonfiction, suggesting that male-specific pronouns such as 'he' should be replaced with 'one' or 'the writer' to remove gender in teaching books. Women reading his books were offended that they had to read male examples all the time, and Zinsser made changes accordingly. I found the politically-correct usage annoying, because it violated some of his other writing principles: don't use extra words if you can cut them out.
"More damaging--and more subtle--are all the usages that treat women as possessions of the family male, not as people with their own identity who played an equal part in the family saga: 'Early settlers pushed west with their wives and children.' Turn those settlers into pioneer families, or pioneer couples who went west with their sons and daughters, or men and women who settled the west." ~Ch. 10, On Writing Well, by William Zinsser
While I appreciate Zinsser's point, using the male pronoun actually stems from the English language found in the Bible. Biblical genealogies were created with the male as the family head, followed by 'and their wives and children'. Biblical teaching is often, though not always, written with the word 'he', with the knowledge that the same commands and promises apply to women as well. The Bible designates the male as the head, and many Christians don't realize that removing gender in their nonfiction violates a biblical precedent. Besides, using the pronoun 'he' all the time doesn't change my ability to become a firefighter. Therefore, I disagree with Zinsser on that point.
Zinsser includes excerpts from various books and articles to illustrate his points. They were all appropriate, but three in particular I skipped: the examples on pgs. 144-146 at the end of ch. 14 deal with adultery and broken lifestyles. Page 189, ch. 17, was a women's rights sports article that I skipped because I'd had enough of the women's rights theme. Pg 225, in ch. 19 is just...disturbingly weird. (Excerpt about the presidents.) Again, none of these are terribly explicit, but if you want to exercise extra caution, then I'd recommend skimming.
A third of Zinsser's book is dedicated to specific forms of nonfiction: Interviews, travel articles, memoir, and sports. I enjoyed all of it, and I think if you want to be a perceptive reader in all genres, then it's worth reading the whole book to know what is good writing in those forms. Knowledge is power, and I like to tuck away all kinds of knowledge in case I need to refer to it later. But to get the meat of the writing instruction you don't have to read these sections, so feel free to skim.
My favorite point in Zinsser's book is the confidence he encourages writers to have. To be confident in their style, confident in their interests, and confident in their life experiences. Doubting your interests, he says, is not the way to build a career. Jennifer Freitag once said that "It's best to remember that the reader, like an animal, can smell fear in the author." I have found that to be true. Fear leads to wordy and fuzzy writing. Zinsser upbuilds his students with confidence. Write what you are interested in, he says, and people will appreciate it. Indeed, On Writing Well is calming in its reassurance. Some writing books make you dizzy with all the things you have to remember if you want to be a breakout seller. Zinsser tells you to write what you love most and write it well. And he gives you the key steps you need to accomplish that.
I highly recommend William Zinsser's On Writing Well. If it's the only writing book you ever read, it's worth the time it takes to improve your writing-craft.