William Zinsser Quotes

I don’t want to give somebody my input and get his feedback, though I’d be glad to offer my ideas and hear what he thinks of them.

I think a sentence is a fine thing to put a preposition at the end of.

I use perpetrated because it’s the kind of word that passive-voice writers are fond of. They prefer long words of Latin origin to short Anglo-Saxon words—which compounds their trouble and makes their sentences still more glutinous. Short is better than long. Of the 701 words in

If the nails are weak, your house will collapse. If your verbs are weak and your syntax is rickety, your sentences will fall apart.

If you lose the dullards back in the dust, that’s where they belong. You don’t want them anyway.

If you would like to write better than everybody else, you have to want to write better than everybody else. You must take an obsessive pride in the smallest details of your craft. And you must be willing to defend what you’ve written against the various middlemen – editors, agents and publishers – whose sights may be different from yours, whose standards not so high. WILLIAM ZINSSER ON WRITING WELL (p298)

If you write for yourself, you’ll reach all the people you want to write for.

If you’re not a person who says indeed or moreover, or who calls someone an individual (he’s a fine individual), please don’t write it.

It requires writers to do two things that by their metabolism are impossible. They must relax, and they must have confidence.

It’s a fitting irony that under Richard Nixon launder became a dirty word.

I’ve never heard anybody smile.

Journalism is writing that first appears in any periodic journal.

Less is more.

Make a habit of reading what is being written today and what has been written before. Writing is learned by imitation.

Many writers are paralyzed by the thought that they are competing with everybody else who is trying to write and presumably doing it better… Forget the competition and go at your own pace. Your only contest is with yourself. WILLIAM ZINSSER ON WRITING WELL (p77)

Memoir is the art of inventing the truth.

Most nonfiction writers have a definitiveness complex. They feel that they are under some obligation—to the subject, to their honor, to the gods of writing—to make their article the last word. It’s a commendable impulse, but there is no last word.

Most writers sow adjectives almost unconsciously into the soil of their prose to make it more lush and pretty, and the sentences become longer and longer as they fill up with stately elms and frisky kittens and hard-bitten detectives and sleepy lagoons.

My commodity as a writer, whatever I’m writing about, is me. And your commodity is you. Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognise when they hear it on the page. WILLIAM ZINSSER ON WRITING WELL (p231)

My roster of the new literature, in short, would include all the writers who come bearing new information and who present it with vigor, clarity and humanity.

Myself’ is the refuge of idiots taught early that ‘me’ is a dirty word.

Never hesitate to imitate another writer – every person learning a craft or an art needs models. Eventually you’ll find your own voice and will shed the skin of the writer you imitated.

Nobody becomes Tom Wolfe overnight, not even Tom Wolfe.

Nobody ever stopped reading E. B. White or V. S. Pritchett because the writing was too good.

Nobody told all the new computer writers that the essence of writing is rewriting. Just because they’re writing fluently doesn’t mean they’re writing well.

Not every oak has to be gnarled.

Nouns now turn overnight into verbs. We target goals and we access facts. Train conductors announce that the train won’t platform. A sign on an airport door tells me that the door is alarmed. Companies are downsizing. It’s part of an ongoing effort to grow the business. Ongoing is a jargon word whose main use is to raise morale. We face our daily job with more zest if the boss tells us it’s an ongoing project; we give more willingly to institutions if they have targeted our funds for ongoing needs. Otherwise we might fall prey to disincentivization.

One man’s romantic sunrise is another man’s hangover.

One of the words I railed against was personality, as in a TV personality. But now I wonder if it isn’t the only word for that vast swarm of people who are famous for being famous—and possibly nothing else. What did the Gabor sisters actually do?

People and places are the twin pillars on which most nonfiction is built. Every human event happens somewhere, and the reader wants to know what that somewhere was like.

Probably the finest travel book ever written by an American is Walden, though Thoreau only went a mile out of town.

Pure nonsense is a joy forever, as Keats didn’t quite say. I love to see a writer flying high, just for the hell of it.

Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost. That idea is hard to accept. We all have an emotional equity in our first draft; we can’t believe that it wasn’t born perfect. But the odds are close to 100 percent that it wasn’t. WILLIAM ZINSSER ON WRITING WELL (p83)

Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.

Simplify, simplify.

The best way to learn to write is to study the work of the men and women who are doing the kind of writing you want to do.

The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. WILLIAM ZINSSER ON WRITING WELL (p54)

The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.

The reader is someone with an attention span of about 30 seconds.

the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.

The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb…these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. WILLIAM ZINSSER ON WRITING WELL (p7)

The writer who cares about usage must always know the quick from the dead.

The writers job is like solving a puzzle, and finally arriving at a solution is a tremendous satisfaction.

There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published. Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is to come to terms with your life narrative. Another is to work through some of life’s hardest knocks—loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace.

There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.

There’s no subject you don’t have permission to write about. Students often avoid subjects close to their heart…because they assume that their teachers will regard those topics as ‘stupid.’ No area of life is stupid to someone who takes it seriously. If you follow your affections you will write well and will engage your readers. WILLIAM ZINSSER ON WRITING WELL (p91)

Think small. Don’t rummage around in your past – or your family’s past – to find episodes that you think are ‘important’ enough to be worthy of including in your memoir. Look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you still remember them it’s because they contain a universal truth that your readers will recognise from their own life. WILLIAM ZINSSER ON WRITING WELL (p291)

Thinking clearly is a conscious act that writers must force on themselves,

This is a book by a writer who does some teaching, not a book by a teacher who does some writing, and one of the satisfactions of the craft is that there’s always something new to learn.

Today the outlandish becomes routine overnight. The humorist is trying to say that it’s still outlandish.

We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.

We have no king to establish the King’s English; we only have the President’s English, which we don’t want.

When you’re ready to stop, stop. If you have presented all the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the nearest exit. WILLIAM ZINSSER ON WRITING WELL (p64)

Writers are obviously at their most natural when they write in the first person. Writing is an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper, and it will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity. WILLIAM ZINSSER ON WRITING WELL (p20)

Writers are the custodians of memory…

Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.

writing is a craft, not an art, and that the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself.

Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it.

Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.

Writing is learned by imitation. If anyone asked me how I learned to write, I’d say I learned by reading the men and women who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it. WILLIAM ZINSSER ON WRITING WELL (p34)

Writing is such lonely work that I try to keep myself cheered up. If something strikes me as funny in the act of writing, I throw it in just to amuse myself. If I think it’s funny I assume a few other people will find it funny, and that seems to me to be a good day’s work. WILLIAM ZINSSER ON WRITING WELL (p242)

Writing is thinking on paper, or talking to someone on paper.If you can think clearly, or if you can talk to someone about the things you know and care about, you can write – with confidence and enjoyment.

Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all.

You are writing for yourself.

You learn to write by writing. It’s a truism, but what makes it a truism is that it’s true. The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain amount of words on a regular basis. WILLIAM ZINSSER ON WRITING WELL (p49)

You must find some way to elevate your act of writing into an entertainment. Usually this means giving the reader an enjoyable surprise. Any number of devices will do the job…These seeming amusements in fact become your ‘style.’ When we say we like the style of certain writers, what we mean is that we like their personality as they express it on paper. WILLIAM ZINSSER ON WRITING WELL (p297)

You must find some way to elevate your act of writing into entertainment.