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William Zinsser, Author Of 'On Writing Well,' Dies


A man who so generously gave us a some simple rules to help us write better died yesterday. Actually, he'd probably urge me to rethink that sentence so let's try this again. William Zinsser died yesterday.


Zinsser wrote the book on writing. It was called "On Writing Well," and it was first published in 1976. It became an immediate classic.

BLOCK: His rules were simple - keep it short, don't use jargon.

CORNISH: Read everything you write out loud.

BLOCK: We do a lot of that here. Leave the reader thinking you had fun while writing, that you enjoyed it.

CORNISH: Have confidence.

BLOCK: Zinsser elaborated on that point on this program in 2006.


WILLIAM ZINSSER: I don't think you should never worry what people think of you. I think you should write whatever you're writing, you should write entirely for yourself. Don't try to think what editors want, what publishers want, what agents want. They don't really know until they see it. So I think the important thing is to get it down.

BLOCK: More than a million-and-a-half copies of "On Writing Well" have been sold.

CORNISH: Zinsser wrote 19 books. He was also a movie critic and editor at the New York Herald Tribune. When the paper folded in the mid-'60s, he became a freelance writer and later taught at Yale.

BLOCK: Zinsser updated "On Writing Well" occasionally, and that's what prompted our chat with him back in 2006. He had just published a new version with a chapter devoted to memoirs.

CORNISH: He stressed the need to know the stories of our loved ones before it was too late.


ZINSSER: One of the saddest sentences I know is I wish I had asked my mother about that. I wish I had asked my father about that. Writers are the custodians of memory so it's extremely important to get to people, interview your parents, your grandparents. Don't worry what anybody else thinks. The important thing is to be a recorder of the past. But it's very important work, I think, writing family history, whether anyone ever sees it or not.

BLOCK: William Zinsser died yesterday in New York at the age of 92. He's survived by a son and daughter, four grandchildren and his wife, Caroline Fraser Zinsser. They were married for almost 60 years.

CORNISH: He had said his best-known work, "On Writing Well," was her idea.

BLOCK: Our favorite line from that book - there's not much to be said about the period, except that most writers don't reach it soon enough. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.