Sunday, October 7, 2012

A birthday tribute to the best teacher of writing ever

Regular followers of The Reading Room will be familiar with Dr. Mardy Grothe. They will also know that I subscribe to the good doctor's "Quotes of the Week" e-newsletter.

Today's newsletter contained, among other things, this gem on William Zinsser, the legendary author of that legendary guide to writing nonfiction, On Writing Well:


By Dr. Mardy Grothe

On October 7, 1922, William Zinsser was born in New York City (he celebrates his 90th birthday this week). After attending Princeton University, he served in the U. S. Army during WWII. After the war, he achieved a lifelong dream when he was hired by the New York Herald Tribune. For the next 13 years, he worked as a feature writer, drama editor, film critic, and editorial writer. He left the paper in 1959 to pursue a freelance writing career that ultimately produced books, magazine articles, and columns for Look, Life, and The New York Times.

In 1970, Zinsser joined the faculty at Yale University, and it didn't take long for his classes on nonfiction and humorous writing to become some of the English Department's most popular courses. In 1979, he left Yale to become executive editor of the Book-of-the-Month club, a position he held until 1987. For the past 25 years, he has been a freelance writer, an occasional jazz pianist at Manhattan jazz clubs, and a part-time instructor at The New School and Columbia University.


Zinsser has authored 17 books on a variety of subjects, but he is best known for On Writing Well, a book that grew out of his writing classes at Yale. Originally published in 1976, the book has appeared in numerous editions, selling well over a million copies (it is my all-time favourite book on writing). If you're not familiar with the book, I highly recommend it. And if you ever become interested in writing about yourself and your life, you'll do yourself a big favour if you check out his 1987 book, Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir and his 2004 book, Writing About Your Life: A Journey Into the Past.

Zinsser's observations on writing are among my favourite quotations. Here's a baker's dozen of his best:

Writing is thinking on paper.

Thought is action in rehearsal.

Too short is always better than too long.

There's no sentence that's too short in the eyes of God.

Never forget that you are practising a craft with certain principles.

Never let anything go out into the world that you don't understand.

What I want to do is to make people laugh
so that they'll see things seriously. 

Hard writing makes easy reading. 
Easy writing makes hard reading.

There's not much to be said about the period
except that most writers don't reach it soon enough.

Don't ever become the prisoner of a preconceived plan.
Writing is no respecter of blueprints.

Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not
the subject being written about, but who he or she is.

Be yourself and your readers will follow you anywhere.
Try to commit an act of writing
and they will jump overboard to get away.

Conclude with a sentence that jolts....
The perfect ending should take your readers
slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right.

In 2010, at age 88, Zinsser began writing a weekly blog ("Zinsser on Friday") for The American Scholar. After nearly two years and 82 posts, he recently brought his blogging career to an end. But his posts are all archived and available for your reading pleasure here: "The Complete Zinsser on Friday".

  • Additional reading: Michael Dirda, author of Classics for Pleasure, a book I prize, took over William Zinsser's column in The American Scholar. Read Dirda's tribute to Zinsser here.

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