Thursday, May 28, 2015

William Zinsser (1922-2015)

I just learned today that one of my heroes is dead. William Zinsser, author of my writing bible, On Writing Well, passed away at his home in New York City on May 12. He was 92. 

I can only hope he died with pen in hand.

Mr. Zinsser worked as a journalist, then a teacher at Yale,  a freelance writer, again as a teacher, and finally, when he could no longer see due to glaucoma, he helped students and others by listening to their writing and offering guidance.

He wrote many books on a variety of subjects including baseball (Spring Training), historic American sites (American Places), jazz (Mitchell & Ruff), and American songwriters and their songs (Easy to Remember). All were written in the clear, uncluttered, personal style that his classic book on writing espoused.

I own two editions (second and third) of On Writing Well (I wrote about it here). I tracked down a hardcover copy of Spring Training many seasons ago. I also own Writing to Learn, a guide to using writing as a way to immerse oneself in an area of knowledge. The latest addition to my Zinsser bookshelf is The Writer Who Stayed, a collection of weekly essays he wrote for The American Scholar magazine (which I wrote about here).

Writing With a Word Processor is a humorous and helpful look at his trials and tribulations in learning to graduate from pen and paper to machine. It helped me understand my first word processor...oh, so many years ago.

I met him once. It was in 1997. The  30th anniversary edition of On Writing Well had just been published. He came to speak at the library and I took my well-used third edition of the book for him to autograph.

I remember thanking him, as he signed my copy, for the guidance and inspiration his books had given me. I gave him my business card. (For what reason I have no idea. I guess I just hoped he might remember me.) The morning after his appearance, I suddenly wondered if he had a ride to the airport. I phoned the hotel, but he had already checked out. I wish I had thought of that sooner. Wouldn't that have been a story to tell! 

Farewell, Mr. Zinsser. Thank you for your enthusiasm for writing and your generosity in passing on your knowledge of the craft. If I have ever managed to write one coherent, concise sentence, I owe it to you.


  1. On Writing Well is still one of my favorite writing books--one of the first I ever read, in fact, because I think it was assigned in my high school creative writing class. It never occurred to me that he might have written other books (duh), and several of the ones you mentioned sound interesting. Thank you for this post, Belle.

    1. Kathy, there are not too many books out there about writing non-fiction so his was so helpful to me.

  2. I was sure I still had a copy of Zinsser's book, which I read while in a nonfiction writing class but alas it is gone now. It was a classic. Now the only old writing book I have is Brenda Ueland's "If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit." She must have lived quite a life! Do you have this one? Cheers.

  3. Hi, Susan. Well, I have read Ms. Ueland's book but don't own a copy. I do, however, have an old copy (it only cost $6.95 new!) of Dorothea Brande's "Becoming a Writer." I get the two confused and had to check my shelves to see which one that I owned. I just finished reading Julia Cameron's "The Sound of Paper", another book on the writing life, which I very much enjoyed. I do love reading books about writing!