Last month, in catching the news roundups of important people who had died in 2015, I didn’t see any mention of William Zinsser, the celebrated teacher of writing who had passed away in May at age 92.
Zinsser’s death had sent me to the living room bookshelf last summer to revisit “On Writing Well,” his popular primer on how to craft a decent sentence. The book was nowhere to be found.
Only later did it occur to me that my copy of “On Writing Well” was exactly where it should have been — at my office desk, where I try to steer words into print.
I think Zinsser would have liked that. One of his abiding lessons was that language shouldn’t be some rarified creature kept under glass, but a workhorse to carry ideas from one mind to another. He wrote “On Writing Well” not only for journalists and authors, but for everyone obliged to make a good sentence: the lawyer writing a brief, the student writing a paper, the consumer sending off a letter of complaint.
“On Writing Well” first appeared in 1976, going through multiple editions numbering 1.5 million copies. When a friend gave me a copy shortly after I started daily newspapering, I quietly accepted the gift, then banished it, mostly unread, to a high shelf. Zinsser’s chief point — that good writing should be unadorned — didn’t resonate with my twentysomething notions of grandeur. The title, “On Writing Well,” seemed to lack ambition. Should it be a life goal, I wondered, merely to write well? What about greatness, genius, poetical brilliance?
I eventually discovered that writing well — simply writing to be easily understood — is a job big enough to keep any scribe busy for a lifetime. Zinsser, a newspaperman and freelance writer who later taught writing at Yale, was smart enough to learn that early.
In the tradition of William Strunk and E.B. White’s “The Elements of Style,” another great book about writing, Zinsser argued for simplicity.
“Clutter is the disease of American writing,” he told readers. “We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon … The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating considerable precipitation wouldn’t dream of saying that it may rain. The sentence is too simple — there must be something wrong with it.”
Like all good teachers, Zinsser led by example. The books he wrote about popular subjects are gems of clarity and concision. In recent years, “American Places,” his survey of great national landmarks, and “Mitchell & Ruff,” his account of an eventful American jazz tour in China, have made it back into print.
That’s good news for those who cherish the English language. Zinsser’s gone, but his work promises to endure.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.