On Zinsser, belatedly

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.