Six writing lessons from William Zinsser

Tips from the influential teacher and author of ‘On Writing Well,’ who died this week. Cut adjectives and adverbs. Keep it simple.

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It was “On Writing Well,” William Zinsser’s classic guide for writers. No doubt the reporter detected verbosity in my prose, the approach of a student padding a paper to reach the professor’s five-page minimum.

“Read it,” he said. “You’ll love it. Zinsser writes like a hot knife cutting through butter.”

Well, hot knives and butter are clich├ęs, something Zinsser, who died this week at 92, warns against. But I drew important lessons from “On Writing Well,” whose influence compares with that of E. B. White and William Strunk Jr.’s “The Elements of Style.”

It was not just Zinsser’s admonitions to cut unnecessary words, though this is a fine place to start. After all, I was an admirer of the gorgeous, layered sentences of Vladimir Nabokov. What I learned was respect for the reader. The writer shouldn’t be a showoff, a unicycle-riding word juggler; good writing tells a story or presents information in a compelling way.

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