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Remembering William Zinsser

One of the writers who has been most helpful to my own writing is William Zinsser. Although he was an accomplished journalist and freelance writer, undoubtedly his most influential work was the first book of his that I ever read, On Writing Well.

Zinsser was born October 7, 1922. Following service in the Army in North Africa and Italy during World War II, he returned to the United States and fulfilled a life-long dream by being hired as a writer for the New York Herald Tribune as a theater reviewer. When that stopped being fun for him, he quit and became a freelance writer. He also taught writing courses at Yale and later became executive editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club.

In addition to numerous articles and reviews, Zinsser wrote 18 books during his life, but none influenced more would-be writers than On Writing Well, which essentially was his writing course in print. Other of his books include Writing to Learn (a book that convinced me of the importance of teaching writing “across the curriculum,” or in every subject, not just English class), Writing Places: The Life Journey of a Writer and Teacher, and The Writer Who Stayed.

I just recently completed another of his books, Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past. In it, he offers some down-to-earth and practical advice for writers of memoir. What better way to remember him than by considering what he had to say to those of us who are, or who want to become, writers?

Following are a selection of ten statements from that book that I found helpful to me in my continued journey to master the craft of writing. Maybe you’ll find them helpful for you, too.

  1. Writers are the custodians of memory, and memories have a way of dying with their owner. One of the saddest sentences I know is “I wish I had asked my mother about that.”

  2. Don’t rummage around in your past for “important” events. . . . Write about small, self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory.

  3. Specific detail is the foundation of nonfiction writing, and nowhere is it more important than in a memoir.

  4. Look for small anecdotes in the larger canvas of your life. They will help you to reduce to human scale the big events you’ve been caught up in.

  5. Don’t waste energy railing at the publishing profession. It has been careless with writers forever and isn’t going to change.

  6. Don’t assume that editors know exactly what they want. Often they don’t Don’t shape yourself to a dumb assignment; that’s no favor to you or to the magazine or to the readers. Shape the assignment to your own strengths and curiosities.

  7. Have confidence in your accumulated knowledge and make yourself available.

  8. Good writers make their own luck.

  9. Write about things that are important to you, not about what you think readers will want to read, or editors will want to publish or agents will want to sell. Readers and editors and agents don’t know what they want to read until they read it. If it’s important to you, it will be important to other people.”

  10. Live usefully; nothing in your life will be as satisfying as making a difference in somebody else’s life.

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