The Street Where I Live

British by birth, New Yorker by nature.

William Zinsser: A Teacher Who Inspired Me

Books & Words, Careers and WorkingAlexandra king4 Comments
 William Zinsser. Damon Winter/The New York Times

 William Zinsser. Damon Winter/The New York Times

"As you start your journey..you may tell yourself that you’re doing “communications,” or “new media,” or “digital media” or some other fashionable new form. But ultimately you’re in the storytelling business. We all are. It’s the oldest of narrative forms, going back to the caveman and the crib, endlessly riveting. What happened? Then what happened? Please remember, in moments of despair, whatever journalistic assignment you’ve been given, all you have to do is tell a story, using the simple tools of the English language and never losing your own humanity."

Writer William Zinsser died yesterday. He was 92. 

Most Americans know Zinsser from his classic US writing manual of sorts called On Writing Well, but, only arriving in New York from the UK one sweltering August nearly 6 (6!) years ago, I didn't know about On Writing Well. I didn't know who William Zinsser was at all. 

Everything changed when I met him. I was a student at Columbia, in the first week of my Masters in Journalism, and he gave a lecture called "Writing English as a Second Language" for all the International Students. Despite being British and English being my first language, I still fell under the International category, so I rather grumpily turned up at the appointed time, along with my Korean and Turkish and German classmates, who I had already haughtily inferred would be much more in need of this lecture than me.

 Just one hour later, I would find that no class before or since would make quite such an impact on the way I write, and (most crucially) the way I re-write.

A small, twinkly-eyed figure, peering over a much too high desk, Professor Zinsser gave his lecture. He was well into his 80's, and had already written all of his 19 books. But he seemed excited by the crowd and filled with energy. We all immediately fell under his spell, as, ever so neatly, he proceeded to make a huge-hearted case for the beauty of the English language. He talked about writing as a job, writing as a pleasure, writing as a way to define ourselves. The rules were clear, he said, and they would set us free. Short is better than long. Simple is good. Long Latin nouns are the enemy. Anglo-Saxon active verbs are your best friend. One thought per sentence.

Mr Zinsser's lecture didn't just give me what felt like a new lease of life on that burning hot day, but a new lease of language. I felt him over my shoulder so often afterwards, especially during the intense year of study that followed. Each time I wrestled with a sentence that didn't feel quite right, I'd scan it for latin nouns, active verbs, sequential order. It always got better.

 I was devastated when I heard that Mr Zinsser had died. In the years since his class, I've ended up covering international news. Over the past half decade, when I have inevitably quoted him, or instructed one of my foreign-born interns struggling with writing to read "Writing English as a Second language", I've often thought, "I must write to him and tell him what his class meant to me". Thank him for helping me discover writers like Joseph Mitchell and Gay Talese. Tell him how the crinkled printout of his lecture from that day half a decade ago still sits on my desk. But I didn't write that letter, did I? I so wish I had.

I struggled how to begin and end this post. What could I really say? He didn't know me at all. I had just been a face in his class. But I nonetheless feel absolutely compelled to tell you what an extraordinary man I think William Zinsser was.  How I still laugh when I think of him instructing a room of super green and somewhat surly 20-somethings to chant, en-masse, "short words good, long words bad". How my own deep and abiding love for the English language, for all words, to be scorned and savored, was bolstered by his. How maybe English really was a foreign language to me before he gave me the tools to truly know, appreciate and wield it. 

You know what's wonderful? He's still on my shoulder, because I hear him now, analyzing that paragraph. I think he'd love the active verbs of "laugh, chant", the alliteration of "scorned, "savoured". He'd (I hope, probably not) forgive my latinate "en-masse". Then, as I sit back now and think "is this good enough?" he'd ask "Is this the story you wanted to tell?" And I would say yes. And he would (I think) be satisfied.