On Writing well by William Zinsser. Principles.

Spanish version of this post in Aprehendizajes.com

-Not so- off topic introduction (But you can skip it)

One of the masterworks in modern Language Philosophy, maybe my favorite, is H P Grice’s work about how communication occurs when ‘speaking to an audience’. Grice extracted some conditions to assure it is effective almost 30 years ago (1989, Studies in the Way of Words). And these ideas are still applicable in the Internet era. The key point is the auditory concept. It is evident in offline communication: writing a book or giving a talk in a WordCamp are good examples of these. But also they are still important nowadays because online communication relies on broadcasted messages (a post) or a succession of broadcasted messages (think about a Twitter thread or the conversation starting from a post and carried on with comments).

Cooperative Principle (HP Grice)

What’s amazing about Grice work? The fact it is easier to explain it than to make a TL;DR. He broke down his work into the so-called “cooperative principle” of 4 conversational maxims:

  1. Tell the truth
  2. Make your contribution as informative as required. Not more, not less.
  3. Be relevant
  4. Be perspicuous: Avoid obscurity, avoid ambiguity, be brief, be orderly.

As you can see the formulation is crystal clear. Surgical. So it can be harsh.

Can we make it nicer, more agreeable to read?

Yes, let’s include a discussion about style, add some storytelling and some nicely chosen examples, and we’ll have the first section (‘Principles’) of On Writing Well book.

Where I talk about the book

I love the way in which this first part of the book -Principles- is written. For each chapter, you can read the first paragraph and the last one and you’d get the main idea, so you don’t really need to dive into the body of the text. But do it! Or you’ll miss a clean, vivid explanation stuffed with lots of relevant examples.

Want an example? This is leading by example: “Chapter Two, Simplicity”

FIRST P: Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.

LAST P: Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.

You can easily compose a moral with that. Let’s say : “You must work on your text until it is completely clear”

And what can you find among these two “featured” catchphrases and the subjacent moral? As I said, examples and clarifications :

  • If the reader is lost, it’s usually because the writer hasn’t been careful enough.
  • The man or woman snoozing in a chair with a magazine or a book is a person who was being given too much unnecessary trouble by the writer.


Where I summarize the book

on Writing Well summary. section 1 'Principles' Raúl Antón Cuadrado
on Writing Well summary. section 1 ‘Principles’. [in blue] mentioned chapter.
And that’s all.

Well, no. Just a divergent footnote.

Footnote: I love the Usage chapter (7th). Here is where the author explains how he took part in a panel to choose which words and which not to put in a 1960s’ dictionary. (On writing well was edited in 1976).  My point here is: if the panelist were unable to agree on some words and they expressed their individual votes… instead of blindly trusting their votes, let’s write with our own words -but yeah, being clear and simple- 🙂

Then, why do I love this chapter? Because it is picturesque, refreshing and colorful and it shows words are living organisms. And that’s poetry, bro.

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Horizontal participation and co-creation activist. Learning communities Passionate. Poet. WordPress Evangelist!!

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