One of my most influential “writing mentors” passed away this month. William Zinsser died on May 12 and leaves a legacy of nonfiction and writing advice. His most famous book, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, has been published in multiple languages and has sold over 1.5 million copies since 1976.
I first encountered On Writing Well as a young college student in the 70s. Now nearly 40 years later, I quickly admit that it was and still is one of my most influential reading experiences. Zinsser offers writing advice in a warm and honest style. He unabashedly reminds writers that writing is “hard work” – words that had great impact on me so many years ago when I naively thought that writing was “hard” only for me. Zinsser also offered a book that was less authoritative than White’s Elements of Style. Where White admonished writers for “split infinitives,” On Writing Well had a kindly “teacher” voice, supportive and humble. Just what this young English major needed.
I’ve learned to surround myself with language, especially when I’m at stressful writing situations. With Zinsser, I’m able to browse chapters and dive into rich reading experience. He lends compassionate, empathic support, and his narrative style reveals a gentleman ready with quick quips and wise advice As I read him, my rapid, anxious heartbeat slows down, ready to write.
As I moved along in my career, Zinsser has always been on my bookshelf and for years I followed his column in The American Scholar. While I never met him, he became a friendly “writing coach.” He lived a long life, and the canon of “writing books” wouldn’t be complete without his voice.
Director of Writing