William Zinsser, 1922–2015
by Katie Wood Ray
Last night, when I saw the news William Zinsser had died, I was sitting in front of my computer at my parents’ house. I am working from here this week in a mobile office with just the bare necessities. Beside me on their dining room table, the table that fed me as I grew from a girl into a woman, lay my worn, trusty, heavily highlighted On Writing Well.
I brought it with me. A bare necessity.
On Writing Well. Another table that fed me as I grew from a beginning writer to a more accomplished one, though still a work in progress. And it’s the work I still have to do, as a writer and now as an editor, that keeps bringing me back to William Zinsser’s table.
I think of my writing life in two distinct phases, B.Z. and A.Z. Yes, I wrote and actually published articles and books before I ever encountered On Writing Well. When I reread my own work, I see the clear demarcation of what came before and what came after this powerful book. I would like to beg the pardon of readers of all my B.Z. books (though I'm not going to tell you which ones they are).
I learned so many lessons from this great teacher—really, so many—but two in particular stand out. One, is pruning. Zinsser said, "Examine every word you put on paper. You'll find a surprising number that don't serve any purpose." Believe it or not, this is one of the truest things I know about writing. I have become downright masterful at taking a 1,000 word piece and cutting it to 800 words and no one, not even the writer, can tell what's missing. Just eliminating the word that in almost every use cuts a word count like, well, like that!
Good writing is lean and confident.
The other lesson that stands out for me is Zinsser's advice about "little qualifiers." He says, "Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and what you think and what you saw…Don't say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don't hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident." My southern-born self fights against a culturally ingrained habit of timidity in my language, but I am mostly over it thanks to Zinsser's good teaching.
His teaching was generous, but in the end it was his basic stance to language that caused me to have a little literary crush—no, a literary crush—on William Zinsser. I don't suffer language bores gladly, but he was no bore. My heart was fixed when I read, "usage has no fixed boundaries—language is a fabric that changes from one week to another." Anyone who's studied the craft of writing seriously knows this to be true, but Zinsser embraced it and he found a way to write about how to write without fencing you in.
You will think I am lying, but I am not, when I tell you I opened On Writing Well to a random page before I began writing this. I landed on page 65 where I'd highlighted these words: "The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right." From where I'm sitting, at my parents' table where endings feel too close these days, the idea of a perfect ending makes me smile. William Zinsser was 92. A good, long life that gave and gave to so many and hopefully felt rewarding in kind. A perfect ending.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Katie Wood Ray is a Heinemann author and editor. Her books include Already Ready, In Pictures and In Words, and What You Know By Heart.