Chances are that if you browse a writer’s bookshelf—someone who enjoys the craft of writing and desires to grow as a writer—then you’ll probably find a marked-up version of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. First published in 1976, this classic has gone through six revisions and continues to be a well-received guide for writers of all sorts.
Zinsser passed away last week at 92. Even though Zinsser was no evangelical, he acknowledged his Christian heritage. A self-described “WASP” (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), he stated, “In my own work I operate within a framework of Christian values, and the words that are important to me are religious words: witness, pilgrimage, intention.”
While many will praise his publications (more than 19 books) and point out his gems of writing wisdom, one aspect of his life is often overlooked. Zinsser was more than an instructor, he was a mentor for writers. From Zinsser we can learn three ways to improve our own role as writing mentors—a simple vision the editorial team at The Gospel Coalition desires to embody.
1. There are no shortcuts in writing.
Always full of wisdom and insight, Zinsser could also be an opinionated curmudgeon—a besetting sin of many writers. When asked to visit a school and give students tips on writing, Zinsser simply retorted, “I don’t do tips.” Later he reflected, “Tips! The ugly little word hung in the air, exuding its aroma of illicit information.” Tips are for those who want an expedient shortcut, an inside scoop, “an edge in outwitting life’s cruel odds,” he said.
Of course, Zinsser readily admitted that his On Writing Well is full of “tips” on writing. But writing for him meant more than placing words together in succeeding sentences. Writing is not a means to career advancement or a book contract. Writing is a vocation, a view of life, a way of being.
“Tips can make someone a better writer but not necessarily a good writer. That’s a larger package—a matter of character.”
2. Character matters for writers.
In one of his online essays for The American Scholar, later compiled in The Writer Who Stayed, Zinsser boiled the role of teacher: “teachers are put on earth . . . to help students grow into the people they are supposed to become.”
From all accounts, Zinsser modeled this role well. Discouraged, insecure, and professionally adrift writers would often visit his office for help. Rather than merely “pulling strings” or helping revise an article, Zinsser made his aim simple: “I try to refocus my frazzled writers on the process of writing, not the product. If the process is sound, the product will take care of itself.”
After learning of Zinsser’s death, a friend and student of his wrote a remembrance in which he reiterated this lesson on character:
Bill wanted more than the virtue of craft honorably practiced. He situated the work in character. You had to do your best work on behalf of readers because it mattered, to them and to you. Your best writing came from who you were and how honestly you took stock of yourself. It was a lesson in craft embedded in life, and always enlivened by humor.
For Christians, character does not appear in a vacuum or from Northeastern “WASP” sensitivities; instead, it must be deeply informed by Scripture. While perfection is an illusory quest, spiritual maturity and being “above reproach” is not (Heb. 6:1; 1 Tim. 3:2). Therefore writers, particularly those communicating biblical truths, should write not from the far-removed heights of spiritual attainment but from the muddy path filled with pilgrims and strangers not yet home (Heb. 11:13; 1 Pet. 2:11).
3. Writing is about relationships.
Two years ago The New York Times published a heartwarming profile on Zinsser, who though at the time 90 years old and blind from glaucoma, continued to help writers. He could not use his eyes, so he offered his ears.
“Sitting with elbows propped and hands clenched, and with the sunglasses and cap protecting eyes damaged by glaucoma, he listens as students read their drafts and fret over narrative.”
“People read with their ears, whether they know it or not,” Zinsser said. In a different context he said, “I write by ear, and sound is what leads me to what I’m rummaging for.” Or again: “Good writers of prose must be part poet, always listening to what they write.”
A year before he had extended an invitation to his friends and former students, offering his services as a writing mentor at his New York home. He would be available
for help with writing problems and stalled editorial projects and memoirs and family history; for singalongs and piano lessons and vocal coaching; for readings and salons and whatever pastimes you may devise that will keep both of us interested and amused. I’m eager to hear from you. No project too weird.
Even when experiencing the debilitating effects of old age, he was more than willing to prioritize relationships and offer advice and encouragement to those who asked.
Writing is hard work. “A clear sentence is no accident,” Zinsser said. “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.” For many writers, writing is a joyful but painstaking process. Part of the difficulty lies in the solitary nature of the craft.
But writing need not be a completely individual process. Whether it’s connecting with likeminded friends or editors, writers should compose in community. According to Zinsser, “a good editor brings to a piece of writing . . . an objective eye that the writer has long since lost.” We all have blind spots and thus fail to anticipate certain questions, or have different backgrounds and experiences that shape how we approach subjects. And of course, there’s that grammatical oversight you didn’t see. (Along these lines, read Jen Wilkin’s piece on the need for “freditors” and our own Gavin Ortlund’s practical insights on how writers and editors should work together.)
TGC’s editorial team daily traffic in words. We’re constantly commissioning, reviewing, editing, and writing about weighty things. We’re thankful for this platform as we seek to broadcast truth, engage some of the most pressing issues of our day, and encourage believers to walk in faithful obedience.
But this is a stewardship, something we must never take for granted and something we must always do with excellence before the Lord. At its best, our writing should come from an honest walk with God in the context of the local church and lived theology. Of course, writing craft matters, but as Zinsser reminds us it must also avoid shortcuts, be rooted in character, and be done in community.
Zinsser said, “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.” Zinsser made many good points on writing well throughout his long life. While he made his exit, we can still take notes.