How to Improve Your Writing—Author Explains

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to improve your writing skills? What does taste have to do with writing?

In his book On Writing Well, American writer, journalist, and teacher William Zinsser explains how to improve your writing. The key, he says, is to develop a taste for good writing. Zinsser believes that you should choose authors whose style you admire, then try to emulate their style until you develop your own voice.

Here’s why developing good taste is the first step to improving your writing.

What Is Good Taste?

As you write, you’ll face many creative decisions that will shape your writing identity. To make these decisions, you should develop good taste. Zinsser acknowledges that the idea of taste is vague, but it can loosely be defined as understanding the creative decisions that do and don’t work for you. Every word you choose, every sentence you construct, every mood you convey—these are all creative decisions. 

(Shortform note: Experts agree with Zinsser’s definition of taste as the filter through which you evaluate your creative impulses. Taste is someone’s personal preferences of cultural, design, or aesthetic patterns. The writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “There is nothing worse than imagination without taste.” He believed in using taste to decide which creative ideas to express in your art and which to ignore.)

Here’s how to improve your writing skills, according to William Zinsser.

How to Develop Good Taste

To develop good taste, first identify your favorite writers—writers whose taste and creative decisions you admire. Once you’ve identified those writers, study their writing and emulate their style. Take the time to mirror their techniques and find what works for you. Don’t be afraid of copying them—Zinsser believes you’ll eventually graduate into your own unique voice and naturally develop your own sense of good taste. 

However, don’t unfairly compare yourself to other writers—it’s not a competition. Zinsser recommends accepting where you are in your writing journey and focusing on your own progress. 

Develop Good Taste by Emulating Great Writers

In Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon echoes Zinsser’s advice to take inspiration from great art and artists in any medium because doing so will help you create better art. Kleon compares the artistic process to genetics: Just like individuals are the products of the gene pools of each parent, art is the product of other art and ideas. While you can’t choose your DNA, you can carefully choose the art and artists you take inspiration from for your work.

Instead of thinking of other great artists as your competition or as an unattainable ideal, think of them as mentors. Kleon recommends studying one artist, her work, and what you like about her work. Kleon believes that by copying your mentor’s work and creative process, you’ll create something new. This is because you’ll inevitably fail to create a perfect copy of your mentor’s work, since it’s personal to her and her tastes, and the ways in which you’re different from your creative mentor will reveal your own unique strengths and develop your taste. For example, when she was a teenager, Joan Didion studied Ernest Hemingway’s writing, which influenced her own minimalist writing style. Despite their stylistic similarities, Joan Didion couldn’t write The Old Man and the Sea, just like Ernest Hemingway couldn’t write Slouching Towards Bethlehem—each story was personal to its writer. 

When thinking about taste, keep these three key points in mind: 

Don’t Be Breezy

When developing good taste, avoid being breezy. Zinsser explains breeziness as trying too hard to sound casual or friendly. Consider this breezy example: “Well guys, do I have a story for you! The other day, I took a jaunt over to the store, and I just couldn’t help myself—that bar of chocolate was calling my name.” As a result of breeziness, this writing sounds unnatural and unpleasant to read. If you wouldn’t talk like this, don’t write breezily either. 

(Shortform note: E.B. White takes Zinsser’s idea one step further, stating breezy writing is the work of an egocentric person. He cautions that not all of your thoughts are of interest to everyone. Find balance between being spontaneous and being thoughtful in your writing.)

Don’t Be Condescending

When developing good taste, don’t make any creative decisions that make you sound condescending or like you’re talking down to your reader. Consider this example: “It’s actually really easy to avoid being condescending—obviously just don’t over-explain concepts. Most people already know this, but don’t make someone feel bad for not understanding something.”

To avoid being condescending, write like how you’d talk to a friend you respect. Be logical and thorough in your explanations, but trust readers to make obvious connections. 

(Shortform note: To avoid sounding condescending, experts advise avoiding the words “actually” and “just.” These words give the impression that you’re talking down to your reader or oversimplifying a topic. Additionally, “simply,” “you should,” and “you know you can” are all condescending ways to start a sentence since they command a reader to do something or assume a reader’s level of knowledge.) 

Don’t Use Clichés 

When developing identity and good taste, your writing should sound unique, so avoid using clichés. Zinsser explains that clichés are phrases that are so overused that they lose all meaning and impact, and they ruin the chance to express something in a new and creative way. 

Not only do clichés make you sound like an amateur writer, they don’t describe what you mean. For example, “She made it in the nick of time,” could be expressed in a better way. Maybe instead of using this cliché, you could describe how this person sped into the parking lot of her destination and rushed into the building. Think of different ways to show what you mean, instead of adding an overused cliché. 

(Shortform note: Unlike Zinsser, some experts believe clichés are okay to use since they carry cultural context. Many clichés originated several decades ago—and sometimes hundreds of years ago—yet these clichés have stayed in use despite the changing nature of our language. Therefore, some experts believe clichés have survived for a reason—because they’re useful and speak to a shared culture. However, as with euphemisms (discussed earlier), readers won’t understand a cliché if they don’t have the cultural context for it. Therefore, you can make the creative decision on whether or not to use clichés.) 

How to Improve Your Writing—Author Explains

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of William Zinsser's "On Writing Well" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full On Writing Well summary :

  • A back-to-basics approach to the craft of writing
  • How to practice simple, clear, and engaging writing—even if you're not a writer
  • How to effectively put your ideas into words

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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