Period. Over. Life has come to a full stop for America’s famous writing coach William Zinsser. He died at his home in Manhattan on May 12 at the age of 92.
He was in his early 80s when he came out with the revised and expanded 30th anniversary edition of his bestseller, On Writing Well: A Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, in 2006.
“I’ve revised it six times to keep pace with new social trends,” he wrote in the introduction to the book.
The book, which has sold over a million copies, is likely to outlive him. Like Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Gowers’ Plain Words, and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, Zinsser’s On Writing Well is a classic likely to be revised and updated for years to come.
It is likely to endure because, whether you are writing with a pen or on a computer, the rules remain the same. Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar checker underlines misspelt words, faulty constructions and sentence fragments like an English teacher.
Zinsser noted the effect of word processors and computers on writing: “Two opposite things happened: good writers got better and bad writers got worse. Good writers welcomed the gift of being able to fuss endlessly with their sentences — pruning and reshaping without the drudgery of retyping. Bad writers became even more verbose because writing was suddenly so easy and their sentences looked so pretty on the screen.”
About his book, he said: “On Writing Well is a craft book, and its principles haven’t changed since it was written 30 years ago. I don’t know what still newer marvels will make writing twice as easy in the next 30 years. But I do know they won’t make writing twice as good. That will still require plain old hard thinking — what EB White was doing in his boathouse — and the plain tools of the English language.”
“Writing is hard work,” he said. “A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it is because it is.”
Writers have to entertain
Writers have to entertain, he stressed. “Besides wanting to write as well as possible, I wanted to write as entertainingly as possible. When I tell aspiring writers that they should think of themselves as part entertainer, they don’t like to hear it – the word smacks of carnivals and jugglers and clowns. But to succeed you must make your piece jump out of a newspaper or a magazine by being more diverting than everyone else’s piece. You must find some way to elevate your writing into an entertainment. Usually this means giving the reader an enjoyable surprise. Any number of devices will do the job: humour, anecdote, paradox, an unexpected quotation, a powerful fact, an outlandish detail, a circuitous approach, an elegant arrangements. These seeming amusements in fact become your ‘style’. When we say we like the style of certain writers, what we mean is that we like their personality as they express it on paper.”
Writers are advised to draw outlines, think of headlines, but good writing is not made-to-order. It comes together through a process of transmutation and may turn out quite different from what the writer planned.
Write the damn thing
Writing in Al Jazeera after Zinsser’s death, Laura Fraser recalled his words. “’The central problem in most writing is the American obsession with the finished product,’he said.’Most Americans setting out on a memoir can picture the jacket of the book—the headline, title, byline and a charming tintype of a child with a pail by the seashore,’ he said.’The only thing they haven’t thought about is how to write the damn thing.’
“You can’t plan a book in advance, he once told me,” she added. “You have to respect the process. When you start to write, you’ll find that the story won’t turn out the way you imagined it, but it will be truer to your life. ‘Forget the final product and start writing the damned story.’”
Zinsser recalled in On Writing Well: “I wrote one book about baseball and another book about jazz. But it never occurred to me to write one of them in sports English and the other in jazz English. I tried to write them both in the best English I could, in my usual style. Though the books were widely different in subject, I wanted readers to know they were hearing from the same person. It was my book about baseball and my book about jazz. Other writers should write their book. My commodity as a writer, whatever I am writing about, is me. And your commodity is you. Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognize…”
He did not want editors to tamper with his writing. “I’ve always felt that my ‘style’ – the careful projection onto paper of who I think I am – is my main marketable asset, the one possession that might set me apart from other writers. Therefore I’ve never wanted anyone to tinker with it,” he explained.
Good editors, bad editors
He noted the difference between good editors and bad editors. “A good editor likes nothing better than a piece of copy he hardly has to touch. A bad editor has a compulsion to tinker, proving with busywork that he hasn’t forgotten the minutiae of grammar and usage. He is a literal fellow, catching cracks in the road but not enjoying the scenery. Very often it simply doesn’t occur to him that a writer is writing by ear, trying to achieve a particular sound or cadence, or playing with words just for the pleasure of wordplay.”
Margaret Ashworth, who was a Daily Mail subeditor for 39 years and wrote Style Matters for reporters and writers, agrees: “Contrary to what many believe, it is not the duty of the sub-editor to turn every story inside out and rewrite it from top to bottom. On the contrary, the more that can be left alone the better. Every change is another opportunity for an error to creep in. While it is bad for a sub to miss an error in copy, it is a hundred times worse to write one in. Remember that the story goes in under the writer’s name, not yours, and his or her reputation with contacts and readers is on the line.
“One of the main attributes of a good sub is having the wisdom to know when to leave copy alone.”
Learning is a tonic
Besides noting the difference between good and bad editors, Zinsser also had plenty to say about what makes a good writer. “Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested,” he wrote. “That’s almost the whole point of becoming a writer. I’ve used writing to give myself an interesting life and a continuing education. If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write. Learning is a tonic.”
Zinsser did have a tonic effect on writers, according to Laura Fraser, whom he mentored. She wrote: “Zinsser encouraged me, and so many others, to write for the sake of writing…
“His words are a tonic in the world of content and dollars per word. When I’m itching to write, to explore without a clear plan, his advice gives me courage. He’s gone now, but his words keep coming to me at my keyboard.
“Zinsser was brilliant at teaching craft and story, and left the world with a lot of better writers. But the greatest thing he offered me, writer to writer, was faith.”