People who write for a living, teach writing, or write on writing generally agree that it is hard work. We all have our moments of despair as writers and if we do not, it is quite likely that it is our readers, who despair. William Zinsser, author of “On Writing Well,” reminds us: “if you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard. (2012, 9).

I have collected advice from great writing books and resources, focusing on writing nonfiction, writing in academic settings, and most of all - writing clearly. I’ve combined all this advice into 7 big recommendations. (This is not advice on citing and referencing, if you need that, please look here).

The intended audience is MA students. I want to thank the students whose MA and PhD work I am currently supervising, who said “yes” enthusiastically, when I asked them if a set of recommendations on writing would be helpful. Collating this has been very educational and I hope will make me a better writer too.

Most of us write unclearly, because:
- Our thinking is cluttered. To free our writing from clutter, we need to “clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.” (Zinsser 2012, 8 )
- We read things into our own writing. “Our own writing always seems clearer to us than to our readers, because we read into it what we want them to get out of it. And so instead of revising our writing to meet their needs, we send it off the moment it meets ours.” (Williams & Bizup 2014, 7).
- Very few people realize how badly they write (Zinsser 2012, 17)


As William Strunk (2011, np) says: “Omit needless words.  Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences.”

Zinsser (2012, 6) agrees, he urges us to get rid of words that serve “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 what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.

Examples of what to avoid:
- long word that’s no better than the short word: “assistance” (help), “facilitate” (ease), “remainder” (rest), “implement” (do), “attempt” (try), “referred to as” (called) (Zinsser 2012, 15);
- slippery new fad words and jargon (Zinsser 2012, 15);
- word clusters with which we explain how we propose to go about our explaining: “I might add,” “It should be pointed out,” “It is interesting to note.” If you might add, add it. If it should be pointed out, point it out. If it is interesting to note, make it interesting. Don’t inflate what needs no inflating: “with the possible exception of” (except), “due to the fact that” (because), “he totally lacked the ability to” (he couldn’t), “until such time as” (until), “for the purpose of” (for). (Zinsser 2012, 15)
- needlessly long formulations: “the question as to whether”  (whether), “there is no doubt but that” (no doubt (doubtless)), “used for X purposes” (used for X), “in a hasty manner” (hastily), #”this is a subject which” (this subject), “owing to the fact that” (since (because)), “in spite of the fact that” (though (although)) (Strunk 2011)
- negative statements: ‘He was not very often on time” is weak, “he usually came late” is strong


Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb. (…) “Joe saw him” is strong. “He was seen by Joe” is weak (Zinsser 2012).

When important actions are in verbs, the sentence will seem clear (Williams & Bizup 2014).

For example (from Williams & Bizup 2014, 32):
- Bad: Our lack of data prevented evaluation of UN actions in targeting funds to areas most in need of assistance.
- Good: Because we lacked data, we could not evaluate whether the UN had targeted funds to areas that most needed assistance.


Most adverbs are unnecessary and annoying. Do not choose a verb that has a specific meaning and then add an adverb that carries the same meaning. Don’t tell us that the radio blared loudly; “blare” connotes loudness. (Zinsser 2012)


Most adjectives are unnecessary, the concept is already in the chosen noun. Stop stating the obvious (yellow daffodils and brownish dirt). If you want to make a value judgment about daffodils, choose an adjective like “garish.” If you’re in a part of the country where the dirt is red, feel free to mention the red dirt. Those adjectives would do a job that the noun alone wouldn’t be doing (Zinsser 2012)

General advice on words from William Zinsser (2012):

1. Care about words. Select them carefully, know the nuances of their meaning.
2. Imitate good writing, figure out how good writers (but don’t assume that everything that is in a good journal is automatically well written) accomplish writing well. What makes their writing good? (But also be realistic about your skills).
3. Use dictionaries
4. Master the small gradations between words that seem to be synonyms


According to Zinsser (2012, 37) unity is the anchor of good writing. To keep the reader from straggling off in all directions; and to satisfy the readers’ subconscious need for order, we need to strive for:

• Unity of pronoun
• Unity of tense
• Unity of mood -  any tone is acceptable. But don’t mix two or three.

Ask yourself some basic questions before you start (Zinsser 2012, 38):
• In what capacity am I going to address the reader? (Reporter? Provider of information? Teacher? Person with shared experience?)
• Who am I writing for? (Zinsser says you are always writing for yourself, Terri Senft’s great advice has been to pick someone who is your fan or who believes in you, and to write for them).
• What pronoun and tense am I going to use? (The general recommendation is to write from “I” and to use present tense apart from referring to something that clearly happened in the past “The first time I heard the term “affordances” …)
• What style? (Impersonal reportorial? Personal but formal? Personal and casual?)
• What attitude am I going to take toward the material? (Involved? Detached? Judgmental? Ironic? Amused?)
What one point do I want to make? “Every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before. Not two thoughts, or five—just one.”

Think small. Decide what corner of your subject you’re going to bite off, and be content to cover it well and stop. This is also a matter of energy and morale. An unwieldy writing task is a drain on your enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is the force that keeps you going and keeps the reader in your grip. (Zinsser 2012, 39)


Making arguments is hard. A good start is to ask ourselves “what am I trying to say?” and imagine how we would answer the reader, when they ask us “why are you telling me this?”

Surprisingly often we don’t know. We have to look at what we have written and ask: have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time? Has fuzz worked its way into the machinery? (Zinsser 2012, 9)

Graff, Birkenstein & Durst (2018, 3) suggest that academic writing is “argumentative”, and to argue well, we need to enter a conversation, summarizing others (“they say”) to set up one’s own argument (“I say”). They call this a “they say, I say” model. It is helpful for discovering what we want to say and then how to say it clearly.

Graff, Birkenstein & Durst (2018, 11 - 12) offer a MASTER TEMPLATE for setting up an argument using the “they say, I say” model, it goes like this:

In recent discussions of …. , a controversial issue has been whether …. . On the one hand, some argue that …… . From this perspective, …… . On the other hand, others argue that ……. In the words of ….. , one of this view’s main proponents, “……”

According to this view, ……  In sum, then, the issue is whether …… or ………. My own view is that  ……… Though I concede that …….. I still maintain that ………  For example, ………. Although some might object that …….. I would reply that …….. . The issue is important because ……….

Taking it line by line, this master template first helps you open your text by identifying an issue in some ongoing conversation or debate (“In recent discussions of a controversial issue has been”), and then to map some of the voices in this controversy (by using the “on the one hand / on the other hand” structure). The template then helps you introduce a quotation (“In the words of”), to explain the quotation in your own words (“According to this view”), and—in a new paragraph—to state your own argument (“My own view is that”), to qualify your argument (“Though I concede that”), and then to support your argument with evidence (“For example”). In addition, the template helps you make one of the most crucial moves in argumentative writing, what we call “planting a naysayer in your text,” in which you summarize and then answer a likely objection to your own central claim (“Although it might be objected that, I reply ”). Finally, his template helps you shift between general, over-arching claims (“In sum, then”) and smaller-scale, supporting claims (“For example”). (Graff, Birkenstein & Durst 2018 12).

The template is a learning tools to get you started, not a structure set in stone.  

Find more “they say, I say” templates here, here.

Find an academic phrasebank of phrases that help make cautious, critical, classifying, comparing, defining, describing and explaining sentences here.


Your writing needs to pose “a problem that your readers want to see solved. That problem might, however, be one that your readers don’t yet care—or even know—about. If so, you face a challenge: you must overcome their inclination to ask, So what? And you get just one shot at answering that question: in your introduction. That’s where you must motivate readers to see your problem as theirs.” (Williams & Bizup 2014, 99).

A good introduction “has the three parts that appear in most introductions. Each part has a role in motivating a reader to read on. The parts are these:

  1. Establish a shared context – “That shared context offers historical background, but it might have been a recent event, a common belief, or anything else that reminds readers of what they know, have experienced, or readily accept” (Williams & Bizup 2014, 100)
  2. State the problem

“For readers to think that something is a problem, it must have two parts:

  • The first part is some condition or situation: terrorism, rising tuition, binge drinking, anything that has the potential to cause trouble.
  • The second part is the intolerable consequence of that condition, a cost that readers don’t want to pay.”

“You can identify the cost of a problem if you imagine someone asking So what? after you state its condition. Answer So what? and you have found the cost” (Williams & Bizup 2014, 102).

There are practical and conceptual problems, and each motivates readers in a different way.

  • “A practical problem concerns a condition or situation in the world and demands an action as its solution.” (Williams & Bizup 2014, 102). A practical problem is about what we should do.
  • “A conceptual problem concerns what we think about something and demands a change in understanding as a solution” (Williams & Bizup 2014, 102). Conceptual problems are about what we should think.”
    • “The condition of a conceptual problem is always something that we do not know or understand.
    • The cost of a conceptual problem is not the palpable unhappiness we feel from pain, suffering, and loss; it is the dissatisfaction we feel because we don’t understand something important to us.” (Williams & Bizup 2014, 103)

“Like your readers, you will usually be more motivated by large questions. But limited resources— time, funding, knowledge, skill, pages—may keep you from addressing a large question satisfactorily. So you have to find a question you can answer. When you plan your paper, look for a question that is small enough to answer but is also connected to another question large enough for you and your readers to care about.” (Williams & Bizup 2014, 104)

       3. State the solution

To solve a practical problem, you must propose that the reader (or someone) do something to change a condition in the world. To solve a conceptual problem, you must state something the writer wants readers to understand or believe. (Williams & Bizup 2014, 105-106)


“Also bear in mind, when you’re choosing words and stringing them together, how they sound. This may seem absurd: readers read with their eyes. But in fact they hear what they are reading far more than you realize. Therefore such matters as rhythm and alliteration are vital to every sentence”. (Zinsser 2012, 27)

Basically, it is really useful to read your own writing out loud. It is particularly useful to do so once you have set it aside for a couple of days, so you no longer exactly remember what and how you wanted to say and can, instead, read what you ended up saying.

A simple rule to remember is to alternate between the length of sentences, Zinsser calls this switching up the “gait” at which the sentences move.

“An occasional short sentence can carry a tremendous punch. It stays in the reader’s ear.” (Zinsser 2012, 28)


The best thing you can do for your writing is to give up the idea that anything is good enough after the first draft. It is not, nor should it be. As Anne Lamott writes in a chapter called “Shitty First Drafts” in her book “Bird by Bird” (1994, 21): “Writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.” … “The first draft is a child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”

Thinking of the first draft like this helps overcome writers block, knowing it has the freedom to be bad, incoherent, childish, ridiculous will help you get out the beginnings of what you want to say, in conversation with whom, and why. Then you shape it into an argument and make it clear.


Learn to let go of what you have written. Yes, it was difficult. No it is not, therefore, pure gold. If it helps, psychologically, create a separate file called “leftovers” and paste all the takeouts there instead of deleting them. I used to do that for years.

“Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it. Unfortunately, this solution is usually the last one that occurs to writers in a jam.” (Zinsser 2012, 58).

“Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost. That idea is hard to accept. We all have an emotional equity in our first draft; we can’t believe that it wasn’t born perfect. But the odds are close to 100 percent that it wasn’t.” (Zinsser 2012, 59)

Please don’t send your first draft to your supervisor.


Always prioritize clarity over style. In fact, it might be useful to ask yourself, as William Zinsser does: “Are you ready for style?” It’s fine if you are not.

“First, then, learn to hammer the nails, and if what you build is sturdy and serviceable, take satisfaction in its plain strength. But you will be impatient to find a “style”—to embellish the plain words so that readers will recognize you as someone special. You will reach for gaudy similes and tinseled adjectives, as if “style” were something you could buy at the style store and drape onto your words in bright decorator colors.” (Zinsser 2012, 16)

“Trying to add style is like adding a toupee. At first glance the formerly bald man looks young and even handsome. But at second glance— and with a toupee there’s always a second glance—he doesn’t look quite right. The problem is not that he doesn’t look well groomed; he does, and we can only admire the wigmaker’s skill. The point is that he doesn’t look like himself.” (Zinsser 2012, 17).

If you feel you are ready for style, here is how to do it:


“Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Therefore, a fundamental rule is: be yourself. No rule, however, is harder to follow. It requires writers to (…) relax, and (…) have confidence.” (Zinsser 2012, 17).

Because it is so hard to relax, because we feel responsible to make good, interesting arguments that offer solutions to important problems and do so clearly and with style, we tend to tense up when we start to write. Zinsser (ibid) describes what typically happens:

Paragraph 1 is a disaster—a tissue of generalities that seem to have come out of a machine. No person could have written them.

Paragraph 2 isn’t much better.

But Paragraph 3 begins to have a somewhat human quality, and by Paragraph 4 you begin to sound like yourself. You’ve started to relax. It’s amazing how often an editor can throw away the first three or four paragraphs of an article, or even the first few pages, and start with the paragraph where the writer begins to sound like himself or herself. Not only are those first paragraphs impersonal and ornate; they don’t say anything—they are a self-conscious attempt at a fancy prologue. What I’m always looking for as an editor is a sentence that says something like “I’ll never forget the day when I …” I think, “Aha! A person!”

So when you are writing, and when you are editing, stop to read, and see if you can find yourself in any of the prose.


“Learn to alert the reader as soon as possible to any change in mood from the previous sentence. At least a dozen words will do this job for you: “but,” “yet,” “however,” “nevertheless,” “still,” “instead,” “thus,” “therefore,” “meanwhile,” “now,” “later,” “today,” “subsequently” and several more. I can’t overstate how much easier it is for readers to process a sentence if you start with “but” when you’re shifting direction. Or, conversely, how much harder it is if they must wait until the end to realize that you have shifted.” (Zinsser 2012, 54).

And finally “you learn to write by writing. It’s a truism, but what makes it a truism is that it’s true. The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.” (Zinsser 2012, 37)


Zinsser, W. (2012). On Writing Well, THE CLASSIC GUIDE TO WRITING NONFICTION 30th Anniversary Edition. Collins.
Graff, G., Birkenstein, C., & Durst, R. (2018). “THEY SAY I SAY” The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing WITH READINGS, 4TH EDITION. New York, London: W.W. NORTON & Company.
Lamott, A. (1994). Bird by Bird, Some Instructions On Writing and Life. New York: Pantheon Books
Williams, J., & Bizup, J. (2014). Style, Lessons in Clarity and Grace, 11TH EDITION. Pearson Education

Further reading:

Becker, H.S. (2007). Writing for Social Scientists How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article, 2nd Ed, The Universty of Chicago Press Books.
Tufte, V. (2006). Artful Sentences, Syntax as Style, Graphix Pr