I was first introduced to William Zinsser in my college’s Art of the Essay course. One of the many books we were required to purchase was the popular On Writing Well, a book that is recommended by many writing instructors. It is this book, which has sold more than 1.5-million copies and is often paired with Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, that made Zinsser’s name a popular one. It’s unfortunate that he has passed.
William Zinsser, writer, famed writing instructor, and jazz pianist, died in Manhattan on May 12. He was 92. Zinsser was a reporter at the New York Herald Tribune and a freelancer after the Tribune closed. He then went to Yale University to teach a nonfiction writing course, out of which On Writing Well emerged. Several of his students are now great writers and editors, such as Corby Kummer, senior editor at the Atlantic, Janice Kaplan, former editor-in-chief of Parade, and Mark Singer, writer at the New Yorker. Zinsser was also a writing adviser and even gave advice to random callers to his house (his number was listed in the telephone book).
“Be wary of security as a goal…It may often look like life’s best prize. Usually it’s not.”
— William Zinsser to graduates of Wesleyan University (Conn.) in 1988. [New York Times obit]
Other positions Zinsser held include executive editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club, blogger for The American Scholar (Zinsser on Friday), and part-time jazz pianist. It’s sad that he’s now gone.
May his soul rest in peace.
Quotes from Zinsser:
“Decide what you want to do. Then decide to do it. Then do it.”
“Write about small, self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you remember them, it’s because they contain a larger truth that your readers will recognize in their own lives. Think small and you’ll wind up finding the big themes in your family saga.”
“I almost always urge people to write in the first person. Writing is an act of ego and you might as well admit it.”
“Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”
“Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.”
“If the nails are weak, your house will collapse. If your verbs are weak and your syntax is rickety, your sentences will fall apart.”
“The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.”
For a list of books on writing, click here.
William Zinsser, Author of ‘On Writing Well,’ Dies at 92 (nytimes.com)
Tuesdays With Zinsser (newyorker.com)
Zinsser’s biography and passages from his books (williamzinsserwriter.com)
Notable authors who have recently passed:
Hugh Ambrose, author of The Pacific, which was made into an HBO miniseries, died from cancer on May 23. He was 48. (Los Angeles Times obit.)
Tanith Lee, a British writer of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror stories, died on May 24. She was 67. Lee wrote over 90 books and 300 short stories, as well as poems and episodes for BBC’s sci-fi TV series Blake’s 7. (Tor obit.)
Other thoughts on Zinsser and his influence
- Remembering Bill Zinsser (theatlantic.com)
- Committing Acts of Literature, Thanks to William Zinsser (RIP) (lindaktaylor.wordpress.com)
- On On Writing Well (greeninkproofreading.wordpress.com)
- Writer’s Wisdom (nikkimmascali.wordpress.com)