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  • Toby Sinclair

6 Best Writing Books Summarised

Best Writing Books Summarised

Readers want to know—very soon—what’s in it for them.

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

I’ve always wanted to write a book.

We meet here. So I’ll assume you do too.

To write a great book, you need to write better.

The good news.

The more you write, the better you get.

Ad Week Copy Writing by Joseph Sugarman

I spent the last few months reading the best writing books.

I've curated the insights into this summary.

All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.

John F Kennedy

The best writing books:

These best writing books will especially help new writers.

Keep it short, sweet and almost incomplete so that the reader has to read the next sentence.

Your sole purpose at the beginning is to hold the reader’s attention at almost any cost.

The moment you get the reader to say “No” or even “I really don’t believe what he is saying” or “I don’t think that relates to me,” you’ve lost the reader.

Every element must be so compelling that you find yourself falling down a slippery slide unable to stop until you reach the end.

At the end of a paragraph, use sentences such as:

  • But there’s more.

  • So read on.

  • But I didn’t stop there.

  • Let me explain.

  • Now here comes the good part.

The car is sold by virtue of its emotional appeal and then justified in its advertising by an appeal to logic.

Emotion Principles

  • Every word has an emotion associated with it and tells a story.

  • Every good ad is an emotional outpouring of words, feelings and impressions.

  • You sell on emotion, but you justify a purchase with logic.

You sell the sizzle and not the steak—the concept and not the product.

Always sell the cure and avoid selling prevention.

Good Examples:

Headline: Consumers are being robbed.

Subheadline: Inflation is stealing our purchasing power. Our dollars are shrinking in value. The poor average consumer is plundered, robbed and stepped on.

Headline: Last Wish

Subheadline: He was a prisoner confined to a cell block. “Give him one last wish,” pleaded his wife.

Copy: George Johnson is in a state penitentiary for a white-collar crime. His seven-year sentence gives him plenty of time to exercise.

Headline: British Men Have Underwear Problem

Subheadline: New survey shows that many British men do not change their underwear for up to three days, and some even as long as a week.

Headline: The Best Pet

Subheadline: Do you want a pet that doesn’t shed?

Copy: Think about it. You can get a pet that doesn’t shed, doesn’t run around the house, and is easy to take care of. You have probably guessed it’s a rabbit, bird, fish or a turtle. Well, you’re wrong. It’s a guinea pig. You probably want to know how do you take care of the guinea pig? Where should I keep it? What does it eat? It’s all simple. If you don’t have a guinea pig cage, then get a box high enough so it won’t get out and large enough so it can run around. Feed it guinea pig pellets and feed it a couple fresh greens. Put plastic at the bottom and newspaper on top then at least an inch high of shavings. Put a bowl in for food and a water bottle for water. That’s all you need to know. To order, call [phone number] and order today.

Copy: Losing weight is not easy. Ask anyone. One of the few pleasures of losing weight is stepping on your bathroom scale and seeing positive results. Your bathroom scale is like a report card—a feedback mechanism that tells you how well you’ve done.

Think of writing as carpentry, and consider this book your toolbox.

Places subject and verb at or near the beginning of each sentence.

Order words for emphasis. Place strong words at the beginning and at the end.

“Don’t have sex on a boat unless you want to get pregnant.”

The most intriguing words come near the beginning and at the end.

Activate your verbs. Strong verbs create action, save words, and reveal the players.

Waiflike, draped in a pale blue veil, Madina, 20, sits on her hospital bed, bandages covering the terrible, raw burns on her neck and chest. Her hands tremble. She picks nervously at the soles of her feet and confesses that three months earlier she set herself on fire with kerosene.

Be passive-aggressive. Use passive verbs to showcase the “victim” of action.

“There were leaves all over the ground” becomes “Leaves covered the ground.” A four-word sentence outworks seven words.

An oppressive educational system is one in which:

  • the teacher teaches and the students are taught

  • the teacher thinks and the students are thought about

  • the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined.

In other words, an oppressive system is one in which the teacher is active and the students are passive.

Watch those adverbs. Use them to change the meaning of the verb.

Consider these two sentences: “She smiled happily” and “She smiled sadly.” Which one works best? The first seems weak because “smiled” contains the meaning of “happily.” On the other hand, “sadly” changes the meaning.

Remember the song “Killing Me Softly”? Good adverb. How about “Killing Me Fiercely”? Bad adverb.

Prefer the simple over the technical. Use shorter words, sentences, and paragraphs at points of complexity.

The writer cannot make something clear until the difficult subject is clear in the writer’s head.

Play with words, even in serious stories. Choose words the average writer avoids but the average reader understands.

Just as a sculptor works with clay, a writer shapes a world with words.

To generate suspense, use internal cliffhangers. To propel readers, make them wait.

“Langdon dialed zero, knowing that the next sixty seconds might answer a question that had been puzzling him all night.”

To sell a gazillion books, learn how to craft the cliffhanger.

Build your work around a key question. Stories need an engine, a question that the action answers for the reader.

In the movie The Full Monty, unemployed factory workers try to make money as male strippers. The engine is something like, will these odd-shaped men go all the way—and how will it bring them love and money?

Place gold coins along the path. Reward the reader with high points, especially in the middle.

You can divide nonfiction books into two categories by their purpose to the reader:

  • Pleasure-givers (“interesting”, “fascinating”, “beautiful”)

  • Problem-solvers (“useful”, “actionable”, “clarifying”)

Problem-solving books help people achieve a tangible outcome, such as to:

  • Achieve a goal or undergo a process

  • Answer a question or understand a concept

  • Improve a skill or develop a toolkit

  • Resolve a fear or inspire a change

  • Adjust their perspective or improve their life

This category of books can be reliably designed, tested, and proven to be valuable to your readers, even prior to publication, which massively reduces the uncertainty and risk around creating something successful.

Here’s the secret to a five-star Amazon rating: be clear enough about what your book is promising that people can decide they don’t need it.

Most business books are “idea books.” They don’t give you one little word about how to get it done.

The point is that, in order to make something valuable for somebody, you must be willing to define and defend what your book isn’t.

Scope = Promise + Reader profile + Who it’s not for + What it won’t cover

The fatal flaw of ineffective books isn’t the writing. They’re generally well-written, well-edited, well-proofed, and well-styled. But they don’t work. Six months later, if you ask a reader what they’re doing differently because of the book, you’ll see that it failed to make even a drop of difference in their lives.

The most recommended book (1) convincingly solves (2) a painful problem (3) for a certain type of reader (4) who then feel compelled to recommend it.

Readers aren’t buying your useful book for its storytelling or suspense. They are buying it as the solution to a problem or a path toward a goal. They’ll stay engaged for as long as you are regularly and consistently delivering on that promise.

At least every few pages, you want your reader to be thinking, “Oh wow, I can use that.”

The most common way to ruin your reader experience is to spend too long on foundational theory before getting to the bits that people actually want.

Powerful questions that drive storytelling: Who are you? Where are you from? What do you do? How do you do it? Why?

All writing is a conversation, not a monologue.

Much of my day-to-day work is persuading others to be less inhibited in their writing.

Liberate yourself. Bring more of yourself to work.

People who write well, think well.

Good writing is about selling.

When you write, say the words out loud or say them inside your head. This simple practice would kill off most examples of bad writing – and therefore of bad thinking.

With mission statements, there is a seemingly irresistible temptation to use portmanteau words like ‘best’, ‘quality’, and ‘excellence’. Instead, use surprising and aspirational words instead.

Good writing should aim to inform. It does this by being simple, clear and logical. Sometimes it needs to do more. It has to excite and stimulate. Bad writing does none of these things. It confuses, frustrates and irritates the reader.

All I have ever cared about And all you should ever care about Is what happens when you lift your eyes from this page.

Gwendolyn MacEwen

Do not think for one minute it is the Poem that matters. It is not the Poem that matters. You can shove the Poem. What matters is what is out there in the large dark And in the long light, Breathing.

When we use the telephone we don’t always feel the need to identify ourselves by announcing our name – the voice itself is identification enough. So too with the written word, although here it is harder to be individual.

All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.

John F Kennedy

Knowledge is useless unless you know how to communicate it – in writing.

David Ogilvy, The Unpublished David Ogilvy

It seems to me that what you are taught to do is inherently less valuable than what you learn to do by your own discovery.

Learning depends on thinking your way past questions not on being given answers.

Clarity is your responsibility, not your reader’s.

A big part of writing clearly is to start where the reader is now, and talk to them – not just at them.

The content of your writing is the words you put on the page. But just as important is the context in which those words are read – who the reader is, what they know, how they feel and what’s going on for them at the time they read your message. Content is what you say, but context determines what the reader hears.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

William H. Whyte

Experts are sharp on details, but sometimes miss the big picture. This is known as déformation professionnelle (French for ‘professional distortion’) or simply ‘nerdview’. Once people are deep inside their specialist area, they find it difficult to put themselves in the position of an outsider. So, if you’re working with an expert, don’t be afraid to ask them some really basic questions. Don’t worry about looking stupid, or admitting you don’t understand. If you already knew all about the subject, you wouldn’t need the expert at all.

4 E’s to Writing:

  • Essentials: What the reader absolutely must know about your message

  • Explanation: More detail to fill out the reader’s knowledge, including links to what they already know

  • Examples: Different perspectives, metaphors or stories that will help the reader understand.

  • Externals: Authoritative views from other people that will build credibility

  • Extras: ‘Nice to have’ stuff, or things that might help the reader remember the message.

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.

Jack Kerouac

Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to “personalize” the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength. Can such principles be taught? Maybe not. But most of them can be learned.

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

Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they don’t know.

Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds—the writer is always slightly behind.

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.

“Who am I writing for?” It’s a fundamental question, and it has a fundamental answer: You are writing for yourself.

What annoys us is that the writer never decided what kind of article he wanted to write or how he wanted to approach us.

Therefore ask yourself some basic questions before you start.

For example:

  • “In what capacity am I going to address the reader?” (Reporter? Provider of information? Average man or woman?)

  • “What pronoun and tense am I going to use?”

  • “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?) “

  • How much do I want to cover?”

  • “What one point do I want to make?”

The last two questions are especially important. Most nonfiction writers have a definitiveness complex. They feel that they are under some obligation—to the subject, to their honor, to the gods of writing—to make their article the last word. It’s a commendable impulse, but there is no last word.

The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead.

Readers want to know—very soon—what’s in it for them.

Therefore your lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading. It must cajole him with freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humor, or surprise, or with an unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question. Anything will do, as long as it nudges his curiosity and tugs at his sleeve. Next the lead must do some real work. It must provide hard details that tell the reader why the piece was written and why he ought to read it. But don’t dwell on the reason. Coax the reader a little more; keep him inquisitive.

Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum. Active verbs push hard; passive verbs tug fitfully. Active verbs also enable us to visualize an activity because they require a pronoun (“he”), or a noun (“the boy”), or a person (“Mrs. Scott”) to put them in motion.

“Joe saw him” is strong. “He was seen by Joe” is weak.

Don’t write that someone clenched his teeth tightly; there’s no other way to clench teeth.

Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed.

Don’t say you weren’t too happy because the hotel was pretty expensive. Say you weren’t happy because the hotel was expensive.

Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.


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