Almost everyone in the business knows “The Elements of Style,” the crisp 1920 handbook by William Strunk Jr., later revised by his onetime Cornell University student, E.B. White of The New Yorker. Every would-be writer should also absorb a similar and much more enjoyable book that was the best thing to come out of America’s bicentennial year, “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser.
As the headline on his New York Times obituary proclaimed, Zinsser (1922–2015) was an “Editor and Author Who Guided Many Pens.”
Indeed, 1.5 million copies of his classic are in print. He embraced all the Strunk commandments about clarity and concision but with a magazine writer’s flair, e.g. “There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.” A Zinsser maxim about writers: “If their values are solid, their work is likely to be solid.”
After World War Two Army service in North Africa and Italy, Zinsser achieved his “boyhood dream” and was hired by The New York Herald-Tribune. That stylish voice of Eastern Republicanism (final edition April 24, 1966, R.I.P.) was the last serious broadsheet competitor of The Times until The Wall Street Journal recently expanded its general news coverage.
The Religion Guy harbored Zinsser’s same ”dream” after a junior high tour of the paper’s 41st Street plant inspired the journalistic vocation, but it was not to be. Pardon the nostalgia, but here’s Zinsser describing the venerable paper’s city room in “Writing Places: The Life Journey of a Writer and Teacher”:
“Decades of use by people not known for fastidious habits had given the room a patina of grime. The desks were shoved against each other and were scarred with cigarette burns and mottled with the stains of coffee spilled from a thousand cardboard cups. The air was thick with smoke. In summer it was recirculated but not noticeably cooled by ancient fans with black electrical cables that dangled to the floor. There was no air-conditioning, but we would have scorned it anyway. We were newspapermen, conditioned to discomfort, reared on movies like ‘The Front Page,’ in which gruff men wearing fedoras barked at each other in sentences that moved as fast as bullets. I thought it was the most beautiful place in the world.”
After 13 years, Zinsser left the paper to freelance for magazines and books, taught non-fiction writing at Yale, and was a Time Inc. colleague (though we never met) as executive editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club (also R.I.P.) back when it was a big deal. During the Club years he organized New York Public Library talks and edited them as a 1988 anthology that included atheists and “spiritual but not religious” types: “Spiritual Quests: The Art and Craft of Religious Writing,” expanded in 1999 as “Going on Faith”: Writing as a Spiritual Quest.”
Zinsser listed his own creed as “Protestant,” no doubt of Manhattan “mainline” manner, but specified no denomination. In “Writing About Your Life,” he recalled being asked by the Quakers’ Earlham School of Religion to deliver the keynote address for its “ministry of writing” program. How did Earlham’s dean “know that I’ve always regarded my writing as a ministry? I had never told anyone; I thought that would be presumptuous. He said, ‘It’s all through your work.’ "
“God turns up occasionally as a governing presence, and my sentences take some of their cadences and allusions from the King James Bible. But there’s no mention of religious worship or religious belief -- the residue of all those Sunday mornings spent in Protestant churches, singing the hymns, reciting the Psalms, and listening to the Word.”
And yet “as a writer I try to operate within a framework of Christian principles, and the words that are important to me are religious words. ... I always write to affirm” and if something negative is treated “my goal is to arrive at a constructive point… I plead guilty to positive thinking.
Whether this is a religious position I’ll leave to some theologian. In any case, it’s an act of faith.”