William Zinsser dies at 92; author of bestselling 'On Writing Well'

William Zinsser dies at 92; author of bestselling 'On Writing Well'
William Zinsser at 90, in his home in Manhattan. (Damon Winter, The New York Times)

William Zinsser had been a writer and editor for 30 years, covering subjects as varied as shad running in the Hudson River and the Mau-Mau revolt in Kenya, when he complained to his wife that his well had gone dry.

She had a brilliant idea: "You should write a book about how to write," she said.



William Zinsser obituary: In the May 14 California section, the obituary of writing expert William Zinsser said that writer Jane Mayer attended a concert at his home. She was not there.


Two years later, in 1976, Zinsser's guide "On Writing Well" hit bookstores across America. With more than 1 million copies sold, it became a sturdy companion for amateurs and professionals alike seeking to express themselves with clarity, economy and human warmth.

Among the principles Zinsser held most dear was simplicity. Be grateful for every word that can be pruned. Banish official-sounding gobbledygook, hyperbole and frivolous flourishes.

"Clutter is the disease of American writing," Zinsser declared in the first pages of his bestseller. "We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon."

Zinsser died Tuesday at his New York City home after a short illness, his wife, Caroline Fraser Zinsser, told Associated Press. He was 92.

A former staffer at the New York Herald Tribune, Zinsser later freelanced for the Atlantic, the New Yorker and other magazines and was executive editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club.

He wrote or edited two dozen books, including ""Writing about Your Life: A Journey into the Past" (2004) and "Writing Places: The Life Journey of a Writer and Teacher" (2009).

In his last years, the self-described "lifelong child of paper" even wrote a popular blog, "Zinsser on Fridays," for the American Scholar. It won a National Magazine Award for digital commentary in 2012.

He had his greatest impact, however, as a teacher of writing. He was a member of the English faculty at Yale University for most of the 1970s, imparting his plainspoken truths about his craft to students who became professional writers, including Christopher Buckley, Mark Singer and Jane Mayer.


For the Record

May 14 2:20 p.m.: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Mayer attended a concert at Zinsser's apartment several weeks ago. She did not.



Mayer, an award-winning writer at the New Yorker, said her visited her former teacher at his apartment a few weeks ago. A lover of the American songbook, he "played show tunes on the piano while a friend played the sax," she said Wednesday. "My father, who is a composer, .... came away saying he was completely wowed by Zinsser's choice of chords. He just had a wonderful ear — for music, for writing, and for life."

Zinsser was born in New York on Oct. 7, 1922. Once described by George F. Will as a "self-effacing and decorous WASP," he grew up on Long Island in a prosperous household headed by his newspaper-clipping mother, Joyce, and businessman father William Sr.

A graduate of Princeton University, Zinsser served in North Africa and Italy for the Army during World War II. Then, rejecting the family shellac business, he went into journalism. He worked at the New York Herald Tribune from 1946 to 1959 in a variety of jobs, including feature writer, drama editor and film critic.

He married Caroline Fraser in 1954. Besides his wife, he is survived by two children, Amy and John; and several grandchildren.

After leaving the paper Zinsser turned to freelancing. His assignments included celebrity profiles, such as a 1963 feature for the Saturday Evening Post on an up-and-coming comic named Woody Allen. Almost two decades later, Allen the movie star-director gave Zinsser a tiny role in 1980's "Stardust Memories" as an unfriendly Catholic priest.

By then Zinsser was a guru of good writing, but he never portrayed himself as infallible.

In "On Writing Well" he shared with readers two pages of what appeared to be the first draft of the book. It bore heavy editing marks, with bloated sentences crossed out and weak words replaced with more vivid ones. In fact, as he explained, those pages were from the final manuscript that he had already rewritten four or five times. He was, he wrote, "always amazed at how much clutter can still be cut."

Such humility was endearing, but Zinsser was not a coddler. He offered his insights in what one reviewer called a "crisp and bossy" manner.

Among his maxims:

"Clear thinking becomes clear writing: One can't exist without the other."

"Few people realize how badly they write...The point is that you have to strip down your writing before you can build it back up."

"Simplify, simplify."

He revised his book half a dozen times, adding examples of writing by women. He was himself a work in progress, who chronicled his own transformations. When personal computers replaced typewriters, for example, he adapted to the new technology and wrote "Writing with a Word Processor" (1983). His next book summed up what he saw as the ultimate purpose of his craft: "Writing to Learn."

In 2009, when American Scholar approached him about writing a blog, he was reluctant. He thought he would always be a writer who wrote on paper. But he became an enthusiastic convert.

"When my article was posted on the got 16,000 hits. Yikes! There were real people out there! Real people reading real articles! On that day," he wrote in 2011, "my umbilical cord to Mother Paper was snipped."

Twitter: @ewooLATimes