A writing coach without a red pen

“Writing is learned by imitation; we all need models,” William Zinsser once wrote. He has been one of mine.

Like many writers, I claim Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well as the first book about writing that captured my heart and imagination. I picked it up at the recommendation of a high school English teacher, and Zinsser taught me how to rinse my writing of clutter and make it shine.

This weekend, The New York Times profiled Zinsser, now a 90-year-old man with glaucoma who is still helping writers with their craft. He cannot read the words on the page, so he listens to them read aloud:

“Much that I no longer see,” he says, “I don’t have to see.”

I love what the Times writer shows us about Zinsser, gracious and wise. I hope that when I am 90, I still care about words the way he does:

People come to him in stages of typed-out paralysis, stalled, uncertain whether they have written too much or too little. He tries to help them organize their thoughts by condensing, reducing — learning what not to include.

“By talking to them, by finding out who they are, I bring out their own personality,” he says. “And ease their mind, for God’s sake.”

The whole article is worth reading. When you’ve finished, pick up On Writing Well for the first or hundredth time.

Sound advice from 1884

Use concise terms; have a choice of words; be anything but commonplace. If you attempt to describe a horserace, put motion into the article; make it so picturesque and full of life that your readers can see the flying animal, the crowd of spectators, and hear the loud cheers that announce the winning heat. Give strength and beauty to the simplest things you describe; use a lead pencil and eraser, and strike out any sentence that is not a picture. Some of the strongest journalistic work in the world has been done by women…

Indeed, the papers to which women do not contribute, and on whose pages they are not employed, are exceptions to the rule. And there is always room for more…

If a woman is born with a talent to write she will write — there is no possible doubt about that.

— Martha Louise Rayne, What Can a Woman Do? (1884)

I went antique shopping with my mother today and found this book in the upper floor of an old Vermont barn. Luckily for me, the whole thing has been digitized by Google and is available here. I’m thankful to Martha Louise Rayne and others like her who wrote intelligently and winsomely about being a woman and a journalist long before I was born.