Reflections on a Great Writer

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Jun 13, 2015

“Surprisingly, often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it.”
William Zinsser

I will always be grateful for William Zinsser and his influence on my life. I don’t remember when I first heard about him but when I read his popular book “On Writing Well” over a decade ago, I was hooked. Published in 1976 with many repeated editions, it has sold over 1.5 million copies. Zinsser wrote 18 other books and I have read most of them but that book transformed my wordsmithing. 

So, when I learned that Zinsser died in his Manhattan home on May 12, 2015, I felt as though I had lost a dear friend. Because Zinsser was a world-renowned writer, editor and teacher, you can imagine my surprise when he replied to my first letter a number of years ago. 

In that letter I wanted him to know how he had inspired and challenged my own feeble attempts at writing, particularly with this weekly column. I sent him some of my columns and his comments were most gracious indeed. I will always cherish our communications over the years.

Zinsser was 92 years old when he died and he packed into those years an amazing array of experiences. He was a World War II veteran and after college taught at Yale University. He was a drama editor and movie critic for The New York Herald Tribune and later became editor of the Book-of-the Month Club. But it was his wife of 60 years, Caroline, who encouraged him to write “On Writing Well” which grew out of his teaching at Yale. 

I suppose the book that caused me to feel the most connected to Zinsser was “Writing About Your Life: A Journey Into the Past.” In that book he teaches the reader how to write autobiographically but he teaches through his own personal story. I loved learning about him in that book. 

To give you a sense of the craftsmanship of Zinsser, some of my favorite quotes from “On Writing Well” are as follows: 

“Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”

“Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”

“The most important sentence in any article is the first one.”

“Of all the subjects available to you as a writer, the one you know best is yourself: your past and your present, your thoughts and your emotions.”

“Writing is an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper, and it will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity.”  

“Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill rode to glory on the back of the strong declarative sentence.”

“Don’t try to be a writer … be yourself and your readers will follow you anywhere.”

“Keep your paragraphs short.”

“Less is more.”

“The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.”

Thank you, William Zinsser, for helping me with every column I write, including this one.

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of  
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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