5 Quotes by Legendary Writer William Zinsser (In Memoriam)

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To write well, William Zinsser believed, you had to “believe in your writing and believe in yourself, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel.” The National Magazine Award–winning journalist and author of 18 books—including the acclaimed bestseller On Writing Well, which has sold more than 1.5 million copies—Zinsser was known for his fervid devotion to “cutting clutter” and energetically maintaining his “voice” in every piece he wrote. “What you write is yours and nobody else’s,” Zinsser wrote in Writer’s Digest in September 1985. “Take your talent as far as you can and guard it with your life. Only you know how far that is.”

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Zinsser, who was also a professor at Yale and the executive editor of the Book-of-The-Month Club, possessed a surfeit of knowledge about the writing craft, and he loved passing on what he’d learned to others. To pay tribute to the author in light of his recent passing at age 92, we dug into our archives for some of the insights Zinsser shared with WD back in 1985.

  • “You can’t stop and ask, ‘Is the reader going to like what I’m writing about, or like me?’ You just have to have the ego to go for it and do what you want to do. … The minute you try to think about what people want, you’re dead. There’s no law that says you have to keep 100% of your readers enthralled.”
  • “All writers should strive to deliver something fresh—something editors or readers won’t know they want until they see it.”
  • “Every time you look at a blank piece of paper, you’re doing something new. You have to step onto that blank territory and remind yourself the sky didn’t fall in the last time you wrote. Writing is a question of overcoming your fears—and everybody has them.”
  • “[Humor and optimism] are lubricants in writing, as they are in life, and a writer lucky enough to have them in his baggage will start the day with an extra round of confidence.”
  • “I have always believed you can almost will things to happen. You just have to hustle yourself and your talent.”

More of Zinsser’s seemingly endless wisdom on the craft was featured in our 90 Top Secrets of Bestselling Authors in celebration of WD’s 90th anniversary a few years back.

Needless to say (and so perhaps Zinsser, ever economical with words, would argue that we shouldn’t say it at all—and yet it must be said) the writing community won’t be the same without him.

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