William Zinsser, author of many books about the craft of writing, died this past May, age 92. I discovered Zinsser’s work only about six years ago. But I was immediately a fan. Especially his most famous book, On Writing Well, and its four indispensable qualities of writing: “clarity, personality, simplicity, warmth”.
In addition to writing books, Zinsser also worked as an editor, freelance writer, and teacher of writing. In all these roles, Zinsser exhorted writers to set aside bloviation and faux over-the-shoulderism. Instead, he dared writers to recenter their work around their own voice and perspective. Not in a narcissistic sense. Rather, he wanted writers to make their enthusiasm for their topic the vehicle for transmitting the idea to readers.
Inherent in Zinsser’s notion of “simplicity” is that of brevity. A piece should go on as long as it has to, and no longer. Inexperienced writers think this is easy. Experienced writers know it’s not. Many of Zinsser’s prescriptions had that quality: easier said than done. Especially if you’ve been trained at school or work—and most of us have—to do the opposite. By the time I discovered Zinsser, I had already been practicing these principles—thanks mostly to Bryan Garner, who favors a similar recipe.
I had one interaction with Zinsser that I’ll share. Not to make it look like I knew him well. I didn’t. Rather, what made an impression was his curiosity and kindness toward someone he had never heard of.
I’ve gotten a nice amount of fan mail since I started writing about typography in 2008. (Keep it coming, America.) In turn, as a reader, I’ve made more of an effort to let authors know when their work makes a difference. They’re not hard to find. They always appreciate it.
It struck me that sending a fan letter to Zinsser might be like telling the Iron Chef that he really knew how to cook. But why not. I also sent Zinsser a copy of the recently published Typography for Lawyers.
About a month later, I got a very kind phone message from Zinsser. He said “I love your book!” and went on to talk about how he had been a “typography nut” all his life, and how he used to have a printing press of his own. He encouraged me to call him at his office in New York. A few days later, I did. During our long phone call, Zinsser told me more about his appreciation for typography. (Like any good teacher, he also gave me some homework.) The entire exchange made my week.
I didn’t speak to Zinsser again. I did talk about his work in my lecture “Rebuilding the Typographic Society”. But I hope he remains a role model for writers. I miss him already.