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Updated: Sep 12, 2022

A page of the final manuscript of this chapter of "On Writing Well." Although it looks like an original, it's actually Zinsser's fourth or fifth draft.

In 1942, during World War II, the United States government issued a blackout order:

"Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination."

Say what?

"Tell them," President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "that in buildings where they have to keep work going to put something across the windows."


I would even take Roosevelt's clarification a step further: "If you must work indoors past dark, cover your windows."

In On Writing Well, William Zinsser uses the above story to illustrate what he sees as the biggest problem with American writing. "Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby [think we] sound important. The airline pilot who announces that he is 'presently anticipating experiencing considerable precipitation' wouldn't think of saying 'It may rain.' The sentence is too simple—there must be something wrong with it."

But, in fact:

The secret to good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.

"Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that's already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing whatthese are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence" (Zinsser, 7).

Ironically, these pollutants increase rather than decrease the higher up the educational or rank ladder you go. Just look at any contract template for my tech writing job. Or any scholarly article in an academic journal. Or the government memo written above.

It's no wonder my students act surprised when I tell them "simple is better."

But, really, isn't it? Because what is more effective—a complex argument you can't follow or a simple one you can? A writer who uses big words to sound important, or one who speaks plainly to be understood?

In the coming weeks, I'll be dissecting the ways in which we unintentionally convolute our writing and things we can do to improve. This is important because, as I said in my previous post, writing is one of the most effective mediums to create meaningful, well thought-out discussions in our society, which can promote much-needed empathy and change. In order to do that, though, our arguments must be concise. Readers today have about a 30-second attention span and a million other forces competing for their attention. (How many of you came across this post because you were scrolling on Facebook? See?)

If you want to be heard, you must be clear.

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