William Zinsser, Author of ‘On Writing Well,’ Dies at 92
Monday, May 18, 2015 - Filed in: General Interest
William Zinsser, a writer, editor and teacher whose book “On Writing Well” sold more than 1.5 million copies by employing his own literary craftsmanship to urge clarity, simplicity, brevity and humanity, died on [last] Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 92.
His wife of almost 60 years, Caroline Fraser Zinsser, confirmed the death.
Mr. Zinsser wrote 19 books, taught at Yale and elsewhere, was drama editor and movie critic for The New York Herald Tribune and executive editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club.
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).
It became a book that editors and teachers encouraged writers to reread annually in the manner of another classic on the craft of writing, “The Elements of Style,” by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White.
Mr. Zinsser went beyond that earlier book’s admonitions on writerly dos and don’ts; he used his professional experience to immerse readers in the tribulations of authorship, even subconscious ones.
“Ultimately, the product any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is,” Mr. Zinsser wrote in “On Writing Well.” He added: “I often find myself reading with interest about a topic I never thought would interest me — some scientific quest, perhaps. What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field.”
In an autobiography, “Writing About Your Life: A Journey Into the Past” (2004), Mr. Zinsser said he did not find his writer’s voice until he was in his 50s, when he wrote “On Writing Well.” He had hoped to be perceived as “the urbane essayist or columnist or humorist,” he said, but realized that his most basic desire was to be a helpful instructor, “to pass along what I knew.”
“Now, whatever I write about, I make myself available,” he wrote. “No hiding.”
His advice was straightforward: Write clearly. Guard the message with your life. Avoid jargon and big words. Use active verbs. Make the reader think you enjoyed writing the piece.
He conveyed that himself with lively turns of phrase:
“There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough,” he wrote in “On Writing Well.”
“Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill rode to glory on the back of the strong declarative sentence,” he wrote in “Writing to Learn: How to Write — and Think — Clearly About Any Subject at All” (1988).
It added up to more fun than some readers might have expected. “You actually enjoy reading it, rather than feeling like you’re eating your spinach,” Ronald Kovach wrote in The Writer magazine in 2002 of a Zinsser book.
William Knowlton Zinsser was born in Manhattan on Oct. 7, 1922. He escaped the urgings of his father to join the family’s shellac business but could not escape his mother’s counsel that being cheerful was a Christian obligation.
“It is because of her that I am cursed with optimism,” he said in his autobiography.
He attended Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, where he said he was “intoxicated” by the scent of printer’s ink as editor of the school paper. His Princeton education was interrupted by World War II, during which he served in the Army in North Africa and Italy.
After the fighting ended, he was able to take art history courses at a college the Army had set up in Florence. On his return to Princeton, he persuaded the dean that his firsthand experience visiting Italy’s art treasures deserved Princeton credit.
“I’ve always thought he waived one or two credits to make my total come out right,” Mr. Zinsser said of the dean, Robert K. Root, in his autobiography. “In the middle of the interview he stopped counting; numbers weren’t as important to him as learning.”
In a manner typical of his writing, Mr. Zinsser used this episode to make a philosophical point about America’s obsession with winning and losing. “Don’t be afraid to fail,” he declared.
He described his own life as a chain of disruptions. He lost his beloved first job at The Herald Tribune when the paper closed in 1966. He left New York for New Haven to teach at Yale, something completely new. He left Yale for the Book-of-the-Month Club, another uprooting. He was nervous, he said, but things worked out.
“Be wary of security as a goal,” Mr. Zinsser advised graduates of Wesleyan University in Connecticut in 1988. “It may often look like life’s best prize. Usually it’s not.”
He worked for 13 years at The Herald Tribune as feature writer, drama editor and movie critic, glorying in Broadway opening nights and junkets to Hollywood. Then came 11 years as a freelance writer, churning out magazine articles as well as many books. One, “Pop Goes America” (1966), analyzed what was meant by the word “pop” (an enjoyment of the superficial, he explained).
Mr. Zinsser wrote that the loneliness of the freelance writer’s life helped persuade him to turn to teaching. When he arrived at Yale in 1970, 170 students applied to take his course, “Nonfiction Workshop,” which had room for 20.
The new teacher guessed that the course’s popularity stemmed in part from a desperation to learn the grammar and syntax that permissive English teachers had ignored. Yale quickly hired more journalists to teach writing fundamentals, and the Yale English department added writing instruction to its curriculum.
Mr. Zinsser also edited Yale Alumni Magazine and was master of Branford College, one of Yale’s 12 undergraduate residential colleges.
“On Writing Well” grew out of his teaching at Yale. Writing it was his wife’s idea, he said. They had married in October 1955.
Mark Singer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, took Mr. Zinsser’s course at Yale and has reread his book several times.
“The first lesson he taught was what to leave out,” Mr. Singer said. “He was a demon about clutter.”
Mr. Singer praised Mr. Zinsser for guiding aspiring writers on the arduous path of finding their own voice. “He certainly helped people avoid the pitfalls of trying to sound like something they’re not,” he said.
Christopher Buckley, the political satirist, said in an interview that he sensed Mr. Zinsser 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,” Mr. Buckley said. “Doubtless, Bill would say, ‘I think you missed a few.’ ”
Mr. Zinsser frequently received letters from less famous writers, including the night manager at a resort campground in Orlando, Fla., who had recently become editor of the camp newsletter.
“Because of my moaning and groaning about what to write and how to write it, my boyfriend gave me a copy of ‘On Writing Well,’ ” the woman wrote. “Now I am having a real blast!”
Mr. Zinsser worked for the Book-of-the-Month Club for eight years. He later taught writing at the New School in New York. In his late ’80s he wrote a blog on popular culture, the craft of writing and the arts for the website of The American Scholar that won a National Magazine Award for digital commentary.
He published books steadily, more than confirming his self-definition: “a writer who does some teaching,” not vice versa. Besides writing about writing (he published books on writing memoirs, political novels, children’s books, religious books and travel books), he followed his own advice and wrote about what interested him, including baseball, songwriters and resonant American places, like Yellowstone National Park and Pearl Harbor.
He once said that his book “Mitchell & Ruff: An American Profile in Jazz” (1984), a well-received portrait of the jazz musicians Dwike Mitchell and Willie Ruff, was his personal favorite. He also said that getting paid to play jazz piano might have been his proudest achievement.
Besides his wife, with whom he shared another home, in Niantic, Conn., Mr. Zinsser is survived by their son, John; their daughter, Amy; and four grandchildren.
In 2012, Mr. Zinsser sent a written invitation to friends and former students “to attend the next stage of my life.” He said glaucoma had caused “further rapid decline in my already hazy vision,” forcing him to end his 70-year career as a writer.
But he announced his availability “for help with writing problems and stalled editorial projects and memoirs and family history; for singalongs and piano lessons and vocal coaching; for readings and salons and whatever pastimes you may devise that will keep both of us interested and amused.”
“I’m eager to hear from you,” he wrote. “No project too weird.”
Note: This is a reprint of an article by Douglas Martin for The New York Times.