New York Times 5.12.2015
On May 11, 2015, at the age of 92, Bill Zinnser died in his home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Many will wonder, who was he? A sports star? A celebrity? An inventor? A diplomat? Well, while he was a bit of all of these he was none. He was a writer and one of the greatest teachers of non-fiction writing and memoir we have had the honor to grace the Western world.
A former WW II correspondent and journalist, whose scope ranged from combat to culture (he wrote over 600 movie and theatre reviews), it was not until he was in his 50s that he took up the cudgel of helping others write well. He remarked that he was complaining to his wife about how poorly was the writing he encountered in so many authors that she exhorted him to do something about it.
The result is a shelf full of books on writing well – as well as studies on American pop music and baseball (two of his passions); 19 books in all. Bill Zinsser’s signature book, “On Writing Well“, has become a treasure and bible for non-fiction writers, and has sold over 1.5 million copies.
I met Bill Zinsser late in his life, and not at the beginning of mine. In 2011, I joined some 20 others for an evening writing workshop he taught at The New School in NYC (Ink-Stained for Life: What Makes for a Great Teacher). I stayed in contact with him after that, as his physical life became more compromised but not his wit or wisdom. My Zinsser experience fueled my passion for writing, as well as an appreciation that writing is a craft — but one that must be infused with the writer’s authenticity and humanity.
Writing, as Zinsser liked to say, is a craft no less and no more worthy than plumbing or carpentry. All take the same determination to get the job done well: that means waking each day and getting to work. There is no mood for writing, as there is no mood for plumbing. Sit down and write, he used to proclaim. Make no bones about it, writing well must be learned, word by word, day after day. But if you do try, I can hear Zinsser’s dictums. Begin with simplicity and clarity. Achieve brevity and make clutter the enemy. Don’t weary your reader with dense language because we are rich with alternatives. A reader shouldn’t have to labor to understand; a writer owes the reader the pleasure of reading, which should not be a chore. His crowning principle, I think, is humanity. The writer must be a person, someone the reader can trust. Otherwise, it’s just words.
Eight semesters ago, with my colleague Dr. Deborah Cabaniss, I began teaching medical writing for the lay public to doctors and neuroscientists at the Columbia University Medical School Department of Psychiatry. More recently, this teaching expanded to the New York Academy of Medicine, the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meetings, and to young writers associated with Commonweal Magazine. I am amazed at the hunger so many professionals (young and older, early and advanced career) have to speak (write) their mind, outside the confines of professional journals and scientific venues. And goodness knows, we need their educated ideas to counter the avalanche of uninformed opinion written by anyone with a keyboard that appears throughout social media sites.
I owe Bill Zinsser, as do so many others, a big thank you for giving me the prescription for what it takes to be a good writer and teacher. It all may sound simple, since in fact it is when well done, but that doesn’t mean it is easy to achieve. Whenever I write, even today with this piece, I hear his slightly cranky, ever kind, Yankee voice urging me on and telling me to be sure to get it right.
The views expressed here are entirely my own. I take no support from any pharmaceutical, device or treatment industry company.
Dr. Sederer’s book for families who have a member with a mental illness is The Family Guide to Mental Health Care (Foreword by Glenn Close) — is now available in paperback.
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