William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” as Social History

On Writing Well

For those interested in the craft of non-fiction, one would do well to have this book on a nearby shelf:

One of the most trusted resources in the craft of non-fiction writing has been William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. Having sold well over a million copies now, the book has recently celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. Which led The American Scholar magazine (Spring 2009) to offer up an essay by Zinsser on the book’s evolution.

During my reading of the essay, two thing about Zinsser’s book– and the craft of writing in general – came to mind. First, writing, like language itself, is never static. Writing, one might say – in the vein of a glass half empty – is always held captive by the society it reflects. And in this day of ongoing future shock, writing and language will change with every social twist and turn (something all writers should heed).

The second thing Zinsser’s essay brought to mind: Writing a how-to book on non-fiction writing, a book constantly amended to reflect social change becomes an historical roadmap of such changes. Zinsser gives us such a roadmap through the evolution of non-fiction writing over the past thirty years of his book. He does this by offering the reader rhyme and reason for his regularly recurring amendments to On Writing Well. His chronology goes something like this:

1974-1976 – Writing for the first edition

Zinsser began with another writer’s chestnut, The Elements of Style, by Strunk & White, which gives a compendium of principles on writing that seem somewhat abstract, arbitrary, and binding. What’s missing here is how to apply such principles. To supply this missing element, Zinsser turned, oddly enough, to a book on writing popular songs by composer Alec Wilder. If there’s ever been a social phenomenon that maps contemporary changes through the decades, it’s pop music. Still, his explanations on how to apply non-fiction writing principles remained in “freeze-frame” in one respect: most of his exemplars were male.

1980 – The second edition

By the eighties, technology had become king of social change. Zinsser added a chapter on jargon, something that had been giving composition teachers fits. In this edition, he tried to make such technical items seem more human. In league with this no-nonsense time, he also advised more terse writing, paring adjectives and adverbs. Interestingly (yes, I’m aware of the adverb I’ve just used), he also cautioned writers to higher ethical standards, to defend their work to editors, publishers, and agents. This, in an age of business and financial upset that still haunts us today.

1990s – Yet more editions

By the ‘nineties, America might have been unrecognizable to someone from the ‘seventies. Women, who had come to dominate fiction in the late twentieth century, were making serious inroads into non-fiction, particularly in the memoir genre. The nation had seen a new wave of immigrants – from Africa, Asia, the Middle East – and they were now beginning to shape these United States. Zinsser flushed a good number of male graybeards from his exemplars to make room for up and coming women. He even showcased technical journals, in the form of a magazine of electrical and electronics engineers, which lent its technical expertise to the field of political writing. To reflect this more clinical mindset in society, Zinsser began advising, where possible, life without pronouns.

1998-2001 – A sixth edition

In this edition, On Writing Well turned personal. It reflected Zinsser’s own interests, more so than the collective interests of the society about him. He wrote chapters on jazz and baseball. In this new turn, memoir became a literary obsession. He began to lead writers into understanding the process of writing such non-fiction, that it’s an organic phenomenon, impossible to map out ahead of the day-to-day process of writing.

When you think about it, writing must be captive to its time (the glass half-full now), not only in language usage and style, but in the ways it reflects people, their unique responses to both internal and external social conditions.
Surely Zinsser will eventually stop editing his book, but I certainly hope someone picks up his banner and continues it, if only to extend his mapping of our language and times.

Bob Mustin

One Response to “William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” as Social History”

  1. appalachianauthor Says:

    Bob, thanks for your support of the Blog. You make excellent contributions.
    Jack (J Russell) Rose, Pres.

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