Whether on my bookshelf (first physical, now virtual), or in my head, William Zinsser has been my essential, career-long writing coach. For years, he’s patiently nudged me toward clarity and vitality, paragraph by paragraph, subject by verb, revision by mounting revision. Count me among the army of writers whose habits his “On Writing Well” has transformed
Zinsser died May 12 at age 92, and scribes of all stripes praised his influence.
As Arika Okrent wrote online in The Week magazine, “Generations of writers have relied on the patient, realistic, and humane advice (Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time).” Amen to that.
On Al Jazeera America’s website, author Laura Fraser lauded Zinsser’s book for teaching writing for writing’s sake.
“He offered us tools to write better, cutting away clutter to get to the core,” Fraser wrote. “He gave us permission to be ourselves on the page and to enjoy writing so our readers would enjoy it, too.”
And political satirist Christopher Buckley said Zinsser’s lessons carried powerfully. Buckley told The New York Times he sensed Zinsser, whose class he took at Yale, “perched on his shoulder like a parrot when he sat down to write. The parrot always says to look for needless verbiage.”
“It might not be an exaggeration to say that millions of words have been cut,” Buckley said in the Times’ obit article for Zinsser. “Doubtless, Bill would say, ‘I think you missed a few.’”
Zinsser attended Princeton and served in the Army during World War II. He taught writing at Yale and elsewhere. He was executive editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club and movie critic and drama editor and for The New York Herald-Tribune. He freelanced for magazines including The Atlantic and The New Yorker. And he wrote 19 books.
“On Writing Well” was first published in 1976 and has sold more than 1.5 million copies worldwide. It has long been a staple of college writing courses. The Yale Daily News, the school newspaper at Zinsser’s employer for most of the 1970s, reported that “On Writing Well” was used in 14 of the 21 sections of “Reading and Writing the Modern Essay” for the 2014-15 academic year.
Dan Denton, a 1975 Yale graduate, Zinsser student and founder of several magazines, told the Yale Daily News that Zinsser’s class was a “life-changer.” Denton said Zinsser pointed students toward better writing and clearer thinking through profiles, editorials and interviews.
Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich quoted Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” chapter on clutter, in which he advised against jargon and clichés.
“Don’t dialogue with someone you can talk to,” Zinsser wrote. “Don’t interface with anybody.”
Zinsser’s wisdom went beyond writing, to life and career. As Schmich wrote, “He talks to writers about their psyches as well as their verbs. He knows that writing means wrestling not just with words but with fear.”
And, because of his experience, Zinsser could speak honestly, and presciently, about career instability that would await many journalists. To the Times, Zinsser described his life as serial disruptions: the closure of The New York Herald-Tribune in 1966 bounced him out of journalism and into teaching. He’d bounce again, from Yale to the Book-of-the-Month Club.
“Be wary of security as a goal,” The New York Times quoted Zinsser telling Wesleyan University graduates in 1988. “It may often look like life’s best prize. Usually it’s not.”
I first read “On Writing Well” as a college kid, sprawled out on Syracuse University’s grassy quad. His short, punchy chapters felt like a respite from the thicker, abstruser texts cramming my backpack. I loved his essential message: Tell your story straight and tight (“Nobody wants abstractions,” Zinsser told Poynter’s Mallary Tenore in 2011, “They want specific details that help them discover something new.”) And believe in yourself.
“The only way to write something good,” Zinsser told Tenore, “is to write what you want to write and believe in the validity of its subject and don’t give a damn about anybody else.”
I’ve read “On Writing Well” so often I can quote its maxims from memory. And throughout my career, I’ve passed copies on to new-to-journalism reporters and writers of all kinds. It’s that kind of book.
In an article posted on the DeKalb (Ill.) Daily Chronicle website, Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, wrote that after she’d heard of Zinsser’s death, she pulled out her second-edition copy of “On Writing Well,” which she’s owned since its publication in 1980. It was a gift from her then-boyfriend.
“Thirty-five years later, we are still friends, a rare status on my short list of former beaus,” she wrote. “I’m not saying I always hug him hello because he gave me Zinsser’s book, but I can’t say it doesn’t make me just a little happier to see him.”
I gave my college-days copy of “On Writing Well” to a colleague from my first newspaper internship, at the now-defunct evening Syracuse Herald-Journal. He repeated the gesture, buying a copy for a colleague at his first post-college paper.
I’ve given away a handful of the books and I’ll probably give away more.
These days, Zinsser sits in my Kindle, nestled among electronic New Yorker magazines, New York Times back issues, dictionaries and books. In a finger tap, he’s there to remind me that writing is thinking on paper and that the essence of writing is rewriting.
Zinsser taught me, and everyone else who listened, that writing well is hard. When I’m wandering mentally or physically, trying to coax out a stubborn sentence, he’s on my shoulder, a la Christopher Buckley, reminding me it’s OK, I’m OK. Writing is a discipline, Zinsser would say; keep at it and the work will come. Believe in yourself and your energy will become infectious.
“Don’t try to think what editors want, what publishers want, what agents want,” Zinsser once told NPR. “They don’t really know until they see it. So I think the important thing is to get it down.”