By J.F. McKenna
Writing well is a pleasure in itself. The joining of the ideal subject to the perfect verb, the crafting of paragraphs that tell a story long on clarity and style, the fashioning of a clever lead promising an equally clever ending—all are delights of writing well.
No one knew that better than William Zinsser. And few preached the joy of writing well to others better than Zinsser.
“Don’t assume that bad English can still be good journalism, or good business writing, or good technical writing, or good travel writing, or good sports writing. It can’t,” declared the writer, editor and teacher in his 1998 introduction to On Writing Well, the best-known of his shelf of books. “Good English is your passport to wherever you need to go in your writing, your work and your life. All the writers I’ve quoted in this book are vastly different in personality and style. But all of them write good English. You can, too.”
William Knowlton Zinsser won’t be with his disciples to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his classic next year. The East Coast native and one-time drama critic of The New York Herald Tribune died this past May at 92. I’m sorry I never got to meet him in person, or to introduce him to the journalists who literally guided me in my apprenticeship in Cleveland—Russ Faist, Stan Modic, Joe Breig. Stan would have been fiercely devoted to Zinsser’s advice that “when you’re ready to stop, stop,” and Zinsser would have gladly endorsed Russ’ favorite newsroom doggerel: Get it right. Write it tight. Make it bright. And make it march.
Zinsser started creating On Writing Well in 1974, the year I talked my way into a Kent State-approved journalism internship at the weekly Universe Bulletin. “By then I had been teaching at Yale for four years,” Zinsser would later recall in his 2009 memoir, Writing Places, “and I liked the idea of trying to capture my course in a book.” Back in that Summer of Watergate, I would have considered myself lucky to have just a copy of Zinsser’s notes to go with my frontline education from such old pros as Joe and Russ at East 9th Street and Superior Avenue.
“Joe, with Randy on his vacation, you’re going to handle obituaries, ok?” Russ said. “It’s standard stuff, a chance to pick up house style. You’ll get it quick.”
“Got it, Russ.”
“One more thing, Joe. No one in this paper ever ‘passed away.’ Here one moment, gone the next. Everyone ‘died.’”
By the end of that summer I had moved from obits to news and feature stories—and to this day I still haven’t lost my appreciation for the basics of any craft, but especially journalism. A couple of years after that internship, I discovered William Zinsser and On Writing Well. The discovery has proved my continuing post-graduate education in the word trade.
Here’s how the author, in his 2009 book, Writing Places, recalled putting together the first edition of On Writing Well:
I began by writing brief chapters on fundamental principles such as clarity, simplicity, brevity, usage and the elimination of clutter. Then I settled into the heart of the book—longer chapters explaining how to write a lead, how to write an ending, how to conduct and construct an interview how to write about travel and science and technology and sports and the arts, and how to write topical humor. Throughout I provided examples of writing I admired in those fields. The authors I chose were very different in personality and style, but all of them wrote good English. That was the premise I wanted to establish: that nonfiction is hospitable to an infinite number of voices. Any style is acceptable if the writing is clear.
For many non-journalists, On Writing Well has been a trusted guide, too. “Countless careers,” Zinsser advises in the book, “rise or fall on the ability or the inability of employees to state a set of facts, summarize a meeting or present an idea coherently….But just because people work for an institution, they don’t have to write like one. Institutions can be warmed up. Administrators can be turned into human beings. Information can be imparted clearly and without pomposity….”
So sayeth still—from the eternity of book publishing, that is—William Zinsser, a man who spent 13 years at the Herald Tribune, 11 years as a freelance writer and other years as a writing teacher at Yale and to the larger world. Hard credentials to ignore. And, for extra measure, add in his other books, including Mitchell & Russ and Spring Training, a book about my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates.
Zinsser modestly called himself “a writer who taught”—until glaucoma brought an end to seventy years of writing in 2012. And even then he welcomed requests for help with writing problems. As he said, “No project too weird.”
So is there a suitable epitaph for William Zinsser, a fellow who said he was cursed with optimism, an acknowledged demon who chased word clutter, and a common man’s philosopher who was often wary about security in life as a goal? That epitaph is found in the last paragraph of Writing Places:
And yet, stuck with my traditional skills, I’m not feeling obsolete. Language is still king, writing still the supreme conveyor of thoughts and ideas and memories and emotions. Somebody will staff and have to write those Web sites and blogs and video scripts and audio scripts….Whatever new technology may come along, writers will continue to write, going wherever their curiosities and affections beckon. That can make an interesting life.
CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. McKenna and his wife, Lady Carol, now live in neighboring Steeler Country with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at email@example.com .
CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor and marketing-communications consultant. He also attends all meetings of the Mark Twain Society of Penn Hills, a small and informal literary gathering near Pittsburgh. McKenna and his wife, Carol, now live in Steeler Country with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .