Wit and wisdom for wordsmiths

Quick: Hand me the Zinsser!

 Day 27 of Blogathon 2013


Everybody who’s ever worked in a newsroom or a publishing house has heard somebody yell, “Hand me the Zinsser!”

“The Zinsser” is a small book called “On Writing Well,” and it beats Strunk and White by a mile. Mine is about 3 feet from my computer and the pages are falling out.

William Zinsser was born a card-carrying WASP.  He grew up on the north shore of Long Island, graduated from Princeton and served in the Army during World War II.

He’s been  a feature writer and film critic for the  New York Herald Tribune; written 18 books; taught nonfiction writing at Yale; worked as a senior editor at the Book-of-the-Month Club; moonlighted as a jazz pianist; is rabid about baseball, and in his late 80s, wrote a blog on the arts for the Web site of The American Scholar

In a 2009 article  he described how he came to write “On Writing Well,” and how he revised it 9 times, from its first edition in 1976, when he was 52, to the last in 2006.

He explains why in the first edition all the writers he discussed except Joan Didion were male, and why all his pronouns were male.

He describes why he wrote subsequent editions, which he called “regular tune-ups.” How he added more female writers. More subjects like sports and the arts. More on technology. More on how to structure.  On how to write memoirs, and family histories. More on how writers can gain confidence in their voices.

By now, the little book has sold almost a million and a half copies.

Today Zinsser is 90 and blind, his vision destroyed by glaucoma.

Last year he sent an invitation to friends and former students to “attend the next stage of my life.” From now on, he said, he would be available

“for help with writing problems and stalled editorial projects and memoirs and family history; for sing-alongs and piano lessons and vocal coaching; for readings and salons and whatever pastimes you may devise that will keep both of us interested and amused. I’m eager to hear from you. No project too weird.”

Today people come to his New York apartment to read works in progress, to talk, or just to visit.   He listens, comments and guides.

Being blind, he says, is no impediment. “People read with their ears,” he says, “whether they know it or not.”

Zinsser has lost track of how many writers he’s coached. But he says his biggest reward is hearing from the ones who say he helped them “get rid of the sludge.”

Who helps you get rid of the sludge? Comment above.

3 Responses to Quick: Hand me the Zinsser!

  1. [...] Quick! Hand me the ‘Zinsser’! (The Writer’s Clinic) – Jean Gogolin expounds on her favorite book on writing well, William Zinsser’s classic, On Writing Well. “It beats Strunk and White by a mile,” she says. “Mine is about 3 feet from my computer and the pages are falling out.” Mine is about 3 feet from my desk too. I’ve praised Zinsser on this pages before, read William Zinsser and On Writing Well, and How does Zinsser’s On Writing Well pertain to science writers? [...]

  2. Jean Gogolin says:

    Thanks, Victoria. I guess you could conclude you’d done a service for the people who didn’t give it back. ;-) Actually, I think Zinsser is helpful for fiction and memoir writers too. I just wish I could sit in on one of his sessions.

  3. Victoria says:

    I’ve reread my Zinsser many times, recommended it many times, lent it to others (didn’t get it back) and bought several editions. It really is a must read for anyone writing non-fiction.

Leave a reply

CommentLuv badge