William Zinsser, dead at 92: On having written well

The promulgator (a word he would likely detest) of the writing philosophy that has guided me since 1976 has left us. William Zinsser, author of “On Writing Well,” is dead at 92 years old.

Zinsser’s book went through six editions. Each revision reflected his growth as a writer and thinker as well as technological and cultural change. From The Times’ obit, masterfully written by Douglas Martin:

But it was his role as an arbiter of good writing that resonated widely and deeply. “On Writing Well,” first published by Harper & Row in 1976, has gone through repeated editions, at least four of which were substantially revised to include subjects like new technologies (the word processor) and new demographic trends (more writers from other cultural traditions).

I’ve been fortunate. I’ve spoken to him twice, both by phone, back in the late ’70s and early ’80s. He was warm, concise, and approachable. I’ve bought so many copies of his book. I keep giving a copy to (well, to be honest, pushing a copy on) one of my students, so, over the years, I’ve probably bought more than 50 copies of “On Writing Well.”

When I first read it, after its publication in 1976, I’d been in the news business for only six years. As a writer, I was far more the hack than a Hemingway. I found Zinsser’s book interesting, but, in the word created by Robert Heinlein, I didn’t “grok” it until many years and many annual re-readings (my New Year’s Day tradition still) later.

Zinsser spoke (and in my mind, will always speak, even from the grave) of clarity, economy, brevity, and humanity. Easy words to read; hard words to fully understand and put into practice as a writer. I think teaching writing now for about a quarter of a century has given me some insight into those four words. I’m grateful (and, I bet, so are about a million and a half readers who bought his book) for his wisdom.

Yes, there’s a Bill Zinsser website. There’s so much there to read, to wonder about, to feel inspired by. Zinsser did much more than write one helluva good book. (See The Times obit.) If you’d just like a taste of the man, you’ll find articles and book passages there.

In his book “The Writer Who Stayed,” Zinsser notes he was asked to visit a college to pass on some “tips” to becoming a good writer. Zinsser demurred:

“I don’t do tips,” I told the man calling from the school’s English department. It’s not that I don’t have any; On Writing Well is full of what might be called tips. But that’s not the point of the book. It’s a book of craft principles that add up to what it means to be a writer. [emphasis added]

zinsser-bookMy favorite feature of “On Writing Well” reflects Zinsser’s willingness to let his readers see into process. Accompanying this post is a photograph of pages 10 and 11 from his fourth edition. Here’s his description of the edited pages you see:

Two pages of the final manuscript of this chapter from the First Edition of On Writing Well. Although they look like a first draft, they had already been rewritten and retyped — like almost every other page — four or five times. With each rewrite I try to make what I have written tighter, stronger and more precise, eliminating every element that is not doing useful work. Then I go over it once more, reading it aloud, and am always amazed at how much clutter can still be cut. In this Fourth Edition I’ve eliminated the sexist pronoun “he” to denote “the writer” and “the reader.”

Yep — that’s his process. Write. Rewrite. Repeat repeatedly. And he acknowledges this at the end of his chapter on simplicity:

Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this as consolation in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things that people do. [emphasis in original]

Amen, sir. Amen.

photo credits:, Dr. Denny Wilkins

Another take on Zinsser by two-time Pulitzer winner Dan Barry of The New York Times.

Categories: Journalism