Zinsser, William 1922-

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Zinsser, William 1922-

(William Knowlton Zinsser)

PERSONAL: Surname is pronounced Zin-zer; born October 7, 1922, in New York, NY; son of William H. and Joyce (Knowlton) Zinsser; married Caroline Fraser, October 10, 1954; children: Amy, John William. Education: Princeton University, A.B., 1944. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Protestant.

ADDRESSES: Home—45 East 62nd St., New York, NY 10021. Office—Department of Journalism Studies, Columbia University, 2960 Broadway, New York, NY 10027-6902.

CAREER: Writer, editor, and educator. New York Herald Tribune, New York, NY, feature writer, 1946–49, drama editor, 1949–54, film critic, 1955–58, editorial writer, 1958–59; freelance writer, 1959–; Yale University, New Haven, CT, member of English faculty, 1970–79, master of Branford College, 1973–79; Book-of-the-Month Club, New York, NY, execu-tive editor, 1979–87; teacher, New School University, 1993–. Sunday, NBC-TV, entertainment critic, 1963–64; Brooklyn Museum, member of board of governors, 1965–72. Military service: U.S. Army, 1943–45; served in North Africa and Italy; became sergeant.

MEMBER: Century Association (New York, NY), Coffee House (New York, NY).

AWARDS, HONORS: Honorary degrees from Rollins College, University of Southern Indiana, and Wesleyan University.


Any Old Place with You, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1957.

Seen Any Good Movies Lately?, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1958.

Search and Research, New York Public Library (New York, NY), 1961.

The City Dwellers, Harper (New York, NY), 1962.

(With Howard Lindsay, Harry Golden, Walt Kelly, and John Updike) Five Boyhoods, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1962.

Weekend Guests, Harper (New York, NY), 1963.

The Haircurl Papers, Harper (New York, NY), 1964.

Pop Goes America, Harper (New York, NY), 1966.

The Paradise Bit (novel), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1967.

Annual Report of the National Refractory & Brake Company, drawings by James Stevenson, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1969.

The Lunacy Boom, Harper (New York, NY), 1970.

On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction, Harper (New York, NY), 1976, 30th anniversary edition, 6th edition revised and updated, published as On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2006.

Writing with a Word Processor, Harper (New York, NY), 1983.

Willie and Dwike: An American Profile, Harper (New York, NY), 1984, published as Mitchell & Ruff: An American Profile in Jazz, foreword by Albert Murray, Paul Dry Books (Philadelphia, PA), 2000.

Writing to Learn, Harper (New York, NY), 1988.

Spring Training, Harper (New York, NY), 1989.

American Places, Harper (New York, NY), 1992.

Speaking of Journalism, 12 Writers Talk about Their Work, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1994.

Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs, David R. Godine (Boston, MA), 2001.

Writing about Your Life: A Journey into the Past, Marlowe (New York, NY), 2004.


Extraordinary Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography, American Heritage Publishing, 1986.

Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1987, revised and expanded edition, 1998.

Spiritual Quests: The Art and Craft of Religious Writing, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1988, revised and expanded edition published as Going on Faith: Writing as a Spiritual Quest, Marlowe & Co. (New York, NY), 1999.

Paths of Resistance: The Art and Craft of the Political Novel, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1989.

Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1990.

They Went: The Art and Craft of Travel Writings, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1991.


Contributor to Peterson's Birds: The Art and Photography of Roger Tory Peterson, edited by Roger Tory Peterson and Rudy Hoglund, Universe (New York, NY), 2002; columnist for Look, 1967; Life, 1968–72; and the New York Times, 1977; contributor to magazines, including New Yorker.

SIDELIGHTS: "I don't think writing is an art," William Zinsser told Publishers Weekly interviewer Sybil Steinberg. "I think sometimes it's raised to an art, but basically it's a craft, like cabinet-making or carpentry." A seasoned author and journalist, Zinsser recommends a workmanlike approach to writing in On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction. He claims that "the only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis." On Writing Well had its genesis in a writing course that the author taught at Yale University in the 1970s; the class proved so popular that Zinsser decided to expand it into a book. By the time its 25th-anniversary sixth edition was published in 1998, On Writing Well had sold over one million copies and was in use in classrooms and newsrooms throughout the United States. "Zinsser is a veteran journalist, and On Writing Well exhibits his savvy," noted Washington Post Book World contributor Dennis Drabelle. "Like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, to which it pays homage, Zinsser's book is crisp and bossy." Sher-win D. Smith similarly praised Zinsser's guide, observing in the New York Times Book Review that the author's "message can be absorbed with profit by any writer, no matter what his experience or his field."

Part of Zinsser's success is due to his attempts to personalize his guide and make himself "very accessible to the reader," as he told Steinberg. "I think that On Writing Well has been successful because readers know they're not learning from a professor of rhetoric, but from someone who actually has struggled with the craft of writing," the author explained. He used a similar approach in Writing with a Word Processor where, he related, "I wanted the reader to become involved with me and my own anxieties and apprehensions and phobias in writing with a new technology. If I make myself vulnerable, and if readers identify with me, they will learn as I do." In a third volume, Writing to Learn, the author addresses the anxiety that writing itself can inspire. "Zinsser wants to relieve our fear of writing," summarized Chicago Tribune Books critic John Blades, "which, he says, is not the intimidating task that English teachers so often make it seem." By giving examples of clear, organized, comprehensible writing by men and women from many disciplines, Zinsser demonstrates that by "writing to learn" about any subject, an untrained author can write well. Blades also noted that in Writing to Learn: "Zinsser writes so well himself that he makes us forget, if only temporarily, how frightening it can be."

One of Zinsser's own "writing to learn" exercises came during the preparation of the biography Willie and Dwike: An American Profile. Working in a new genre, Zinsser needed to find a new approach to writing. He told Publishers Weekly contributor Steinberg that "in this book I tried to stay out of it as an explainer. I saw it as my job to gather the material and arrange it, to put a shape to it. That's something new I learned at this late stage of my career." Zinsser collected his material on pianist Dwike Mitchell and bass and French horn player Willie Ruff by accompanying them on concerts in the United States. He also went with them on a precedent-setting trip to China, where the duo became the first American jazz musicians to perform there. Although noted for their jazz playing, the two men have also been classically trained and frequently explain the history of their music during appearances. "They are on almost all counts remarkable men, and in Willie and Dwike William Zinsser pays them precisely their due," commented the Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley; "he writes about them with undisguised admiration and affection, and he conveys a real sense of what has made them successful as musicians and as men." In 2000, the book was reissued under the title Mitchell & Ruff: An American Profile in Jazz. A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that the success of the book lies in Zinsser's decision to let his subjects speak for themselves. The voices of Dwike Mitchell and Willie Ruff can be heard directly through long quotations, while Zinsser's commentary puts their words and their lives in context. "The result is a highly infectious, Studs Terkel-like chronicle about the unorthodox development of two distinguished musicians," the critic concluded.

"Like Willie and Dwike," Zinsser told CA, Spring Training is "very much a book about America, which I consider one of my subjects, and about teaching and learning, which is my main subject." For Spring Training Zinsser attended the Pittsburgh Pirates' camp in Bradenton, Florida, interviewing the manager, coaches, players, umpires, and scouts. "Zinsser is at heart a teacher," noted New York Times Book Review contributor Lawrence S. Ritter, and "to judge by this book, he is a very good one indeed." Ritter elaborated: "Virtually everyone he talked to manages to be instructive, clearly explaining in entertaining fashion what he does and how he does it." Ritter also wrote that Spring Training is "amusing as well as informative."

Zinsser once told CA: "American Places is a pilgrimage that I made to fifteen sites that have become major icons, such as Mount Rushmore, the Alamo, Yellowstone Park, Niagara Falls, and Pearl Harbor, or that embody a distinctive idea about American values and aspirations, such as the Wright brothers' Kitty Hawk; Mark Twain's Hannibal; Eisenhower's Abilene; Chautauqua, NY; and Disneyland. My method was not to ask tourists gazing up at Mount Rushmore, 'What do you feel?,' but to go to the custodians of those sacred places—park rangers, curators, librarians, oldtimers, Daughters of the Alamo, ladies of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, etc.—and ask them, 'Why do youthink two million people a year visit Mount Rushmore, or three million people visit the Alamo, or one million people walk across Concord Bridge? What psychological baggage and patriotic needs are all these people bringing to this place?' That method enabled me to tap into the affection and the emotional equity that the custodians have for the places where they work. Writing the book reshaped my thinking, both as a writer and as a teacher of nonfiction writing. I realized that people and places are intertwined, and that by writing about people in a place, or by writing about oneself in relation to a place (which might be a place in our past), we can say much of what we want to say and I can teach much of what I want to teach."

"For Speaking of Journalism," Zinsser told CA: "I invited eleven of my former writing students at Yale in the 1970s who are now successful writers and editors themselves—e.g., Mark Singer and Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, John Tierney of the New York Times—to write a chapter about their journalistic specialty: feature writing, the personal column, scientific and technical writing, political and public affairs reporting, health-and social-issues reporting, magazine editing, sportswriting, environmental and nature writing, and local and regional journalism. My instructions were simple: 'Come and tell stories about what you do and how you do it, and how you got started, and what experiences you learned from, including your mistakes. Tell stories that illustrate a point about your kind of writing or editing that aspiring writers will find helpful.' After each chapter I wrote a postscript relating it to some incident in my own career. My purpose was not only to give the book a connecting thread, but to anchor it in an older journalistic tradition. At Yale my eleven students had been taught out of values of my generation of journalists, and I in turn had been influenced by older mentors like the editors at the New York Herald Tribune, my first job, and by earlier models such as H.L. Mencken."

For Going on Faith: Writing as a Spiritual Quest, Zinsser gathered another group of writers to contribute essays on their craft as it touches on each author's spiritual life. Originally published in 1988 as Spiritual Quests: The Art and Craft of Religious Writing, a volume which grew out of a series of lectures given at the New York Public Library, the expanded book Going on Faith features essays by Diane Ackerman, Frederick Buechner, Allen Ginsberg, Mary Gordon, and Patricia Hampl, among others, each of whom describes his or her original orientation toward the life of the spirit and the life of the writer.

In Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs Zinsser presents a history of popular American music from the 1920s through the 1960s. Zinsser covers Broadway musicals, film scores, and popular songs and singers, focusing especially on the work of little-appreciated songwriters and lyricists whose work he admires. Written from his own perspective as a fan, Zinsser's book is idiosyncratic, opinionated, and full of in-depth details. "He's a genuine fan," wrote Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times, "who sweeps you along with his enthusiasm."

Zinsser has continued to write about the craft that he loves and offers advice on the popular memoir genre in his book Writing about Your Life: A Journey into the Past. Presenting many of his writings about his own life and travels, Zinsser proceeds to dissect the various pieces, noting where they have failed and succeeded. "The book is essentially a memoir punctuated by the author's comments on his own technique," wrote Susan M. Colowick in the Library Journal. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that the author's "frank, affirmative and encouraging style will help anyone embarking on writing their own life story." Zinsser's On Writing Well continues to be republished and updated under the deserved title On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. Writing a review of a 2002 edition of the book, Writer contributor Ronald Kovach noted: "If you … have yet to discover this book, put it high on your list. You'll see why it has gone through multiple, updated editions and sold more than one million copies."



Zinsser, William, On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction, Harper (New York, NY), 1976, 30th anniversary edition, 6th edition revised and updated, published as On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2006.


Library Journal, May 1, 2004, Susan M. Colowick, review of Writing about Your Life: A Journey into the Past, p. 122.

Library Quarterly, July, 1999, review of Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children, p. 408.

New Yorker, September 3, 1984, review of Willie and Dwike: An American Profile, p. 95.

New York Times, March 31, 1983, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Writing with a Word Processor, p. 27; July 13, 2001, Anthony Tommasini, "That Beautiful Rhapsody of Love and Youth and Spring," p. B36.

New York Times Book Review, February 29, 1976, Sherwin D. Smith, review of On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction; July 15, 1984, Richard P. Brickner, review of Willie and Dwike, p. 14; April 23, 1989, Lawrence Ritter, review of Spring Training, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly, June 29, 1984, Sybil Steinberg, "William Zinsser," interview with author, p. 106; September 11, 2000, review of Mitchell and Ruff: An American Profile in Jazz, p. 81; April 5, 2004, review of Writing about Your Life, p. 52.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), April 17, 1988, John Blades, review of Writing to Learn, p. 3; April 2, 1989, review of Spring Training, p. 1.

Washington Post, June 20, 1984, Jonathan Yardley, review of Willie and Dwike, p. B1; July 15, 1986; November 17, 1987.

Washington Post Book World, February 24, 1980, Dennis Drabelle, review of On Writing Well; August 2, 1998, review of Worlds of Childhood, p. 6.

Writer, July, 2002, Ronald Kovach, review of On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, p. 48.


Columbia University Web site, http://www.jrn.columbia.edu/ (April 8, 2006), faculty profile of author.

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