Study Notes: “On Writing Well” For Marketers

It’s been years since I’ve been in an academic setting for my writing. I’ve always had a passion for writing (I wrote an opinion column for our university newspaper) but felt limited by the rules of good writing. The 5-paragraph essay seemed formulaic and rigid, in the vein of standardized testing. It was not until I picked up the book “On Writing Well” by Wiliam Zinsser, that I truly appreciated the art of writing well.

Being a strong writer is a critical element of marketing. Knowing what to say and how to say it are the building blocks of marketing. Here are the 7 principles outlined in “On Writing Well” that can turn marketers into strong writers.

1. Transaction

Good writing makes the reader connect with the writer. The writer’s perspective and humanity. The writer can represent themselves or a brand, but there should be a story to the story.

2. Simplicity

Writing clearly is an outcome of endless revisions and constantly asking yourself, “What are you trying to say and have you said it?” If your reader has to reread a statement to understand it, you’ve made them feel inadequate and lost your audience.

3. Clutter

Zinsser says it best, ” Clutter is the laborious phrase that has pushed out the short word the means the same thing.” Technically, it is every component in a piece of writing that is not doing work. Here is an example: slum vs. depressed socioeconomic area. I can say from personal experience, clutter is valued by an elite few and used to communicate to the elite few. Leaving the rest of us to wonder, are they talking about slums?

4. Style

Now that you’ve stripped your writing down to its basic parts, what is left? Zinnser advises to bring yourself back into the writing by writing in the first person. Using “I”, “me”, “myself” lends authenticity and a natural voice to any piece.

5. The Audience

I’ve spent a lot of time stressing about my audience, whether it was for a magazine or my blog. I closed my eyes and imagined the masses of readers that I had to please. Until I heard this advice, write for yourself. Every joke, every reveal, love your own writing. The readers who matter will love it too.

6. Words

Words are your only tools when it comes to marketing writing (well along with typography which also tells a story). The skills needed to make your writing masterful are originality and musicality. If your writing is filled with cliches and common phrases, it’s predictable and will not hold interest. Fall in love with words and use them to add richness to your sentences. The caveat being, the words must sound good together. Even when we are reading, we are hearing the sentences in our heads. Good writing allows the reader to dance from sentence to sentence without being bothered by displeasing sounds or breaks.

7. Usage

After reading “On Writing Well”, I learned there is something called The Usage Panel, 200 literary scholars who decide how words should be used and if they are words that belong in the American dictionary. For example, the American Heritage Dictionary cites, “Impact in the figurative sense of “a dramatic effect” came under criticism in the 1960s, both as a noun and verb. Complaints that the noun was a pointless hyperbole and a vogue word turned out to be short-lived, and this usage is now is standard.”

The final sections of “On Writing Well” cover methods, form, and attitudes. It is an easy read and comes highly recommended.

– Natasha Kazi