“Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose.” – William Zinsser
Author, teacher, freelance writer and critic William Zinsser died on May 12th at his home in New York City. Zinsser began his professional writing career in 1946 as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, went on to teach at Yale University and to write nineteen books, but he is probably best known for his guide to writing “On Writing Well,” which was first published in 1976. Eventually revised and updated 4 times, “On Writing Well” was among a handful of classic guides to writing, assigned by countless university composition teachers to their students as the last word on clear, concise writing and on authorship.
Zinsser remained at the Herald Tribune until 1959, working as a feature writer, drama critic, editorial writer and film critic. From 1959 to 1970 he worked as a freelance writer, publishing articles in magazines as diverse as The Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look, New York Times Magazine, Horizon and Sports Illustrated and writing 7 books. He found the life a freelancer too lonely, however, and in 1970, began teaching writing at Yale University. Zinsser used his experiences as both a salaried writer and a freelancer to inform his advice in “On Writing Well,” and the book covers not just syntax and style, but the writer’s life. He went on to write several other books on writing, as well as numerous articles for publications like The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Town and Country.
Zinsser served in the Army in North Africa and Italy during World War II, was an avid amateur saxophone and piano player, had a small part in Woody Allen’s 1980 film, Stardust Memories, and from 2010 to 2011 wrote a weekly blog on the arts and writing called “Zinsser on Friday.” He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Caroline Fraser Zinsser.
More on William Zinsser
- Read George Will’s May 13th editorial, “William Zinsser and Writing as Good Art” in the Washington Post
- A selection of Zinsser’s magazine articles can be found on his website