Why William Zinsser’s writing book is still number one

Not long ago I purchased yet another edition of “On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction,” written by William Knowlton Zinsser, that prolific author, editor, and teacher who turns 90 this October.

To be honest, Zinsser already looked like an old man when I first met him in 1980 at a journalism conference in New York City. The venue was a fancy ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria. We shared the stage with Ed Bliss, author of a great book, “Writing News for Broadcast.” Zinsser was promoting his own book, which now boasts for the 30th anniversary edition, sales of “More Than One Million Copies.”

I, at the time, was bookless.

I have accounted since that meeting — I’m just guessing — for a dozen or more of those million copies of “On Writing Well,” volumes which have been read, borrowed from, marked up, loaned out, spindled and mutilated.

The old man is still kicking my ass.

When I last checked the Amazon lists, Zinsser held the number 1 spot for all books on authorship. My “Writing Tools” came in at number 4 (and number 16 in digital version). My book ranked number 2115 among all sold on Amazon; his was number 360. There have been many days when my book has been number 2, but even then I continue to eat the Z-man’s dust. I am a very competitive person and don’t want to play Flabby Phil Mickelson to Zinsser’s Tiger Woods.

(As I write these words, I realize that this essay will get him even more sales. On the track of writing books, I am about to be lapped by a novo nonagenarian.)

I am tempted to declare Zinsser’s book as over-rated, the way that the uber-achiever in our category, Strunk & White, is slammed by certain groups of teachers and scholars. I want to drop-kick Zinsser and then body slam the puny writing god, the way that the Hulk dispatches Loki in “The Avengers.” But I just can’t do it.

I can’t do it because of two freaking pages. Two pages.

For the record, they are pages 10 and 11 in my edition. I’ve studied them until my eyes bleed. I’ve shared them with countless aspiring writers, young and old. There have never — I say never! — been two pages in a writing text as practical, persuasive and revealing as pages 10 and 11. Like the music ethos articulated by the likes of Miles Davis and Tony Bennett, Zinsser demonstrates in writing that there are notes in a composition (words in his case) that the artist should leave out.

In context, pages 10 and 11 appear as a set piece between two chapters, one on Simplicity, another on Clutter. “Clutter is the disease of American writing,” writes Zinsser on page 6. “We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.” LOL!

“Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds — the writer is always slightly behind. New varieties sprout overnight, and by noon they are part of American speech.” OMG!!

Zinsser is too tough on American writing, unable or unwilling to recognize the natural and necessary redundancies inherent in all language, and that jargon, while inflated, may suit the purposes of specialized groups of writers and thinkers. (“Aristotle, what’s up with all those unnecessary abstractions in your “Nichomachean Ethics“?  Simplify, man. Just tell the kid what’s right and wrong.”)

What makes such tough standards tolerable is the way that Zinsser applies them to himself — on pages 10 and 11.

On the bottom of page 11, he explains:

Two pages of the final manuscript of this chapter from the First Edition of On Writing Well. Although they look like a first draft, they had already been rewritten and retyped – like almost every other page – four or five times.  With each rewrite I try to make what I have written tighter, stronger and more precise, eliminating every element that’s not doing useful work. Then I go over it once more, reading it aloud, and am always amazed at how much clutter can still be cut. (In later editions I eliminated the sexist pronoun “he” denoting “the writer” and “the reader.”)

What you see on page 10 and 11 is what looks like the typed version of manuscript pages decorated with dozens of proof-reading marks. It begins mid-sentence with this original text:

“[the reader]…is too dumb or too lazy to keep pace with the writer’s train of thought. My sympathies are entirely with him. He’s not so dumb. If the reader is lost, it is generally because the writer of the article has not been careful enough to keep him on the proper path.”

Lean and simple and uncluttered enough for my taste, and yet, Zinsser goes to work: Crossing out “writer’s” and “entirely” and “He’s not so dumb” and “of the article” and even “proper” before “path.” Here’s what’s left:

“…is too dumb or too lazy to keep pace with the train of thought. My sympathies are with him. If the reader is lost, it is generally because the writer has not been careful enough to keep him on the path.”

Zinsser cuts about 20 percent of the original version, a standard he applies throughout pages 10 and 11.

So why am I emoting over this passage? Because it reveals the heart and head of a generous writer. Those pages with those editing marks reveal the mind of a disciplined writer at work. He will not set any standards for us that he is unwilling to apply to himself.

Then there are the deletions themselves and the strategies behind them. Why do we insist on including phrases such as “in the article”?  During a brief stint as a movie reviewer, my editor repeatedly cut the phrase “in the movie” from my drafts. Where else would the damn scene be?

Why include “entirely”? Now if your sympathies are “partially” with him, we have another story.

And then there is “proper.” I would never have cut it before “path.” I would have embraced the alliteration and the rhythm of a two-syllable word before a final monosyllable. But Zinsser is right! “Path” contains the meaning of “proper.”

A year or so after I met Zinsser, I invited him to Poynter for one of my first writing seminars. He looked even older than I had remembered, but soon became animated in conversations about the craft. (The great writing teacher Donald Murray was also in attendance.)  I broke in to the talk with this exercise: I had retyped and made copies of pages 10 and 11 — but without Zinsser’s editing marks. Each writer had to edit the text with the goal of cutting unnecessary words. “Get rid of the clutter,” I said.

What happened next was revealing and endeared Zinsser to me forever (damn him!). With a sincere but puzzled look, he admitted that he couldn’t figure out what he had cut from his original text. There were problems he could not solve. And solutions he could not remember and re-create. That, my friends, is the vulnerability that all apprentices feel — and some masters, as well.

Happy Birthday, William Zinsser, you old goat. Enjoy your 90s, but don’t look over your shoulder.

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  • Guest

    Your essay is superb.

  • Lisa O

    Your essay is superb.

  • Anonymous

    I just recommended Zinsser to an intro reporting class I’m teaching. “On Writing Well” helped to put me on the path to editing when I was in college in the mid-1980s. One of my two copies disappeared when I lent it to a student. I hope he’s still making good use of it.

  • James H. Smith

    Bill Zinsser and I have corresponded since 1990, when I brought him in to coach my staff at the News-Times in Danbury, CT. Needless to say, he was very well received.
    He told me recently he doesn’t like the “currently explosion.” He rails against it in “On Writing Well”; points out that Strunk & White calls it almost always redundant. But the word is everywhere, just like the wholly unnecessary “located,” a favorite of TV and radio advertisers that has now crept wholesale into journalism. Read Zinsser! Drop unnecessary verbiage!

  • http://twitter.com/AA_Leil_Tweets A.A. Leil

    I love writing efficiency. Neophite writer that I am, I’d never heard of Zinsser before reading this post. Thank you for introducing me to him.
    Also nice to see the person who taught me how to write effective prose (Hi Constance!) posting here. I recommend Sin & Syntax to all the writers in my critique group.

  • http://twitter.com/AA_Leil_Tweets A.A. Leil

    I love writing efficiency. Neophite writer that I am, I’d never heard of Zinsser before reading this post. Thank you for introducing me to him.
    Also nice to see the person who taught me how to write effective prose (Hi Constance!) posting here. I recommend Sin & Syntax to all the writers in my critique group.

  • http://www.facebook.com/carlajeanwhitley Carla Jean Whitley

    Oh good gracious. After reading this, my little heart is beating a bit faster and I’m eager to dive into some editing. Thanks for reminding me of why I love words, and for doing so frequently.

  • http://www.facebook.com/carlajeanwhitley Carla Jean Whitley

    Oh good gracious. After reading this, my little heart is beating a bit faster and I’m eager to dive into some editing. Thanks for reminding me of why I love words, and for doing so frequently.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roy-Peter-Clark/100000896693218 Roy Peter Clark

    Thanks for these great comments. Connie, I had forgotten Zinsser on the art of the ending. I have a theory that any person whose last name begins with the letter Z pays special attention to what comes at the end. Cheers.

  • Alfred Ingram

    I’ve loved every edition of the book that I’ve ever read, but I’ll always have a special place for the first edition.

  • http://www.facebook.com/constance.hale Constance Hale

    Well, I can’t argue about pages 10 and 11, but my favorite section is on
    endings, pages 151 to 155 in my fifth edition. “The perfect ending,”
    Zinsser writes on page 153, “should take your readers slightly by
    surprise and yet seem exactly right. They didn’t expect the article to
    end so soon, or so abruptly….”

    When I’m editing and I see that a writer has not been able to resist
    summing up, or wrapping a ribbon around a story and tying a bow, I look
    two or three paragraphs up from the end. Usually the last paragraph is
    right there, just waiting to be recognized. If the writer pushes back
    and says the ending now feels abrupt, that confirms that we’ve found the
    right place to stop.

  • Mr. News

    Although my wife recently bought me “The Glamour of Grammar” (which I intend to have autographed one of these days), Zinsser and Strunk/White are still “the classics.” I was introduced to the latter in junior high school, the former in college. I wasn’t exposed to any Clark manifestos until my broadcast writing career was underway.

    However, there is another Writer on Writing, whose work on broadcast prose affected me more than any other: Mervin Block. I have his (amusingly autographed) book, “Writing Broadcast News/ Shorter, Sharper, Stronger,” which I have photocopied (don’t tell Merv), recommended and taught. It’s the first three chapters of this book that are the most endearing and enduring. “The Dozen Deadly Don’ts,” “Venial Sins,” and “Top Tips of the Trade” are simply the best 50 pages ever written about broadcast newswriting. IMHO. Roy comes in a close second in my book, which is, as yet, unwritten.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pamela.r.lear Pamela Rosen Lear

    Yep, Zinsser’s books have amazing value … I love your books too, especially “HELP! For Writers”! I came to one of your classes last year at the Int’l Miami Book Fair … I would love to come to one again when you’re in the area.