I rarely read as much at the beach as I think I will. Even so, when our family spent a week at the beach last month, I managed to start – and finish – William Zinsser’s “Writing Places: The Life Journey of A Writer and Teacher.”
The relative brevity of Zinsser’s book, which comes in at just less than 200 pages, helped me cross the finish line.
Although short, Zinsser’s memoir covers a lot of territory, taking the reader through the author’s birth in 1922, his early days as a New York City newspaperman, his work as a freelance author and magazine writer, and his eventual career as one of America’s most celebrated teachers of writing.
Although entering his ninth decade, Zinsser continues to write, most notably in a weekly online column for The American Scholar, which is published by Phi Beta Kappa. Check out the column, “Zinnser on Friday,” at http://www.theamericanscholar.org.
Reading Zinsser’s memoir was also a breeze because of his simple, conversational style, which reminded me of a quote widely attributed to Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”
In other words, writing simple, easily understood English is hard work. No one knows this better than Zinsser, whose “On Writing Well,” a basic guide to crafting clean prose, has gone through numerous editions and sold more than a million copies since it first appeared in 1976.
“On Writing Well” grew out of a popular writing class that Zinsser once taught at Yale. The class always had a long line of students waiting to get in. In selecting who would fill the seats, Zinsser took care to accept not only those who wanted to pursue writing as a career, but also students from many other disciplines.
His point was that all students need basic competence in writing clearly, regardless of what they plan to do in the future.
One of his students, Roanne L. Mann, eventually became a federal judge after taking Zinsser’s writing class. She credited Zinsser with helping her write and think more clearly, a big plus in working on the federal bench.
I still have the copy of “On Writing Well” that a friend gave me a quarter of a century ago. Along with Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style,” Zinsser’s guide has been a wise and reliable presence near my keyboard.
With the start of another school year, another generation of students will be reading Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” for the first time.
His argument for simplicity in writing, which I’ll quote here, remains as timely as ever: “The writer must . . . constantly ask himself: What am I trying to say? Surprisingly often, he doesn’t know. Then he must look at what he has written and ask: Have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time? If it’s not, it is because some fuzz has worked its way into the machinery. The clear writer is the person clear-headed enough to see this stuff for what it is: fuzz.”