William Zinsser’s Words Changed Writing

zinsser-deakWilliam Zinsser passed away on Tuesday, May 12, 2015, at the age of 92. Zinsser was a writer, editor, and teacher. He wrote 19 books, the most well-known being On Writing Well. Zinsser used his love of writing and teaching to create a book that would help others develop the craft.

My first lesson from Zinsser was when I was 15. I was in search of a book to learn about writing. I had spent the summer writing a novel simply because I was bored of reading and rereading the books I owned.

At the store, I glanced over the titles. I read the back matter and flipped through the pages. I tried to decide which writing-self-help book would benefit me the most.

“If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard,” I read in On Writing Well by Zinsser.

I laughed at the sentence. Writing wasn’t hard. I just spent the summer writing a whole novel, and I was confident that it was well written. The truth was my story was an odd combination of three series I was reading at the time, I knew nothing about plot or character development, and my grammar was atrocious.

A few years later, I encountered Zinsser again when I found myself in a writing program. I fell in love with creative non-fiction and with my professor who quoted writers like some people quote movies or song lyrics.

She read widely, so she taught from the voices she loved. She loved Ernest Hemingway’s short sentences, David Sedaris’s three-beat-humor, and Studs Terkel’s ah-ha moments. She taught what she knew about writing through the writing she learned from. A name that was thrown out during my first semester with her was Zinsser.

At the end of the semester, I ordered the book I held when I was 15. I gave Zinsser a chance to teach me to be a better writer because I didn’t feel I stood a chance without him.

As I read On Writing Well, Zinsser became an echo to what my professor had taught the whole semester. Be precise. Choose the right words. Delete adverbs and adjectives. Read widely. Imitate what you like. Find the rhythm in your words. Be confident, but not overconfident. Write for yourself.

Zinsser passed his knowledge about writing to the world. Even if you haven’t personally read On Writing Well, you’ve probably heard one or more of his rules. He gave us a piece of himself in his writing. He gave us a teacher that will live on in not only print but through the lessons of professors, teachers, and writers everywhere.

His book sold over 1.5 million copies. He made the craft of writing readily available to anyone close to a book shop. He gave us the tools to write well. We just have to apply them. That’s the hard part though because writing is hard. Writing is a constant craft. It’s reading, writing, editing, deleting, more writing, and sometimes starting over. It’s a repetitive battle that we put ourselves through to create. But it’s hard to create. If it’s not, then you aren’t doing it right.

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