William Zinsser, 1922–2015

A writer’s writer who taught that clutter was the enemy.

Roger Cohn ’73 is executive editor of the online magazine Yale Environment 360.

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

William Zinsser—shown here in his New York office in 2009—died in May. Best known as the author of On Writing Well, he taught writing at Yale and was editor of this magazine from 1970 to 1979. View full image

I was one of the lucky ones. As a Yale sophomore in 1971, I was a student in William Zinsser’s first class—a college seminar titled, with Zinsserian clarity, “Nonfiction Workshop.” His wisdom about writing and his encouragement profoundly influenced me and was a touchstone for my professional life, as it was for so many others over the years.

Zinsser, who died at his Manhattan apartment on May 12 at the age of 92, was a supremely gifted teacher, who conveyed to his students a deep love for his craft and an enthusiasm for their work (however sophomoric) that made you want to keep working to get it right. Bill’s key message, hammered into us at every opportunity, was that clutter is the enemy of good writing. Forty-five years later, when I sit down to write, I have a sense of Bill looking over my shoulder to see what unnecessary words I should cut.

At first, Bill was an anomaly at Yale. A writer, editor, and critic at the New York Herald Tribune, he had come to New Haven to edit the Yale Alumni Magazine in 1970, a time when the English department regarded journalists as an inferior breed. His seminar proved so popular that it became a regular course and, ultimately, the basis for his classic book, On Writing Well, which has sold 1.5 million copies.

My first job after Yale was at a newspaper. I sent Bill one of my first stories, and he responded with a gracious note and attached the clipping with his comments in the margins—his usual mix of terse criticism and gentle encouragement.

One of the great thrills of my career was getting Bill to write an article for Audubon magazine when I was an editor there in the 1990s. It was a profile of the bird artist Roger Tory Peterson. Bill knew nothing about birds. But he had a great feel for people and wrote a wonderful article that he eventually expanded into a book.

Bill left Yale in 1979 to become executive editor at the Book-of-the-Month Club. His writing career continued into his late eighties, when he won a National Magazine Award for an online column in the American Scholar.

I last saw Bill about a year ago, when I visited him at his apartment. He had become blind and frail, but he was still the warm, courtly, perceptive man I had always known. When his wife Caroline joined us, he told her about my life and career with a level of detail that only my parents could have matched. As always, he was focused on his student. And as always, he was a joyous inspiration.

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