His book influenced me enormously. We learn to write by writing, but if there’s one book to read on writing in English, it’s his. I read it probably eight times, though I’ve lost count. Some parts of it, more than that.
His approach to writing is the correct one – that writing involves rewriting and more rewriting, each time with an eye to cutting words that don’t need to be there.
That through rewriting we achieve greater clarity, and come to know what we think.
He didn’t mean that all sentences should be short. Rather, that all sentences contain only words that are necessary. Same goes for sentences in a paragraph and paragraphs in a text.
He also said that if you pare down your prose to only what’s necessary and do this over and over, through a lifetime, you develop your own voice. That idea hit me as strange at first, but I know now that he was right.
His point, too, that writing is not to be done when you have inspiration, but treated as a job, something you get up and do every day – that was a revelation to me, as well. The anecdote with which he opens the book, about speaking on a writing panel with a doctor, is fabulous.
On Writing Well went through many editions, but the core of it – the first six or so chapters – remains always clear and relevant.
His essay on Clutter in language is probably more on point today than ever.
I wrote to him twice – once after my first book came out and the second time after we published the first Tell Your True Tale: East Los Angeles volume. Each time, he was kind enough to write back.
A good guy who changed English – by making those who write it do it more clearly.
Many thanks, Mr. Zinsser.