“You should write a book about how to write,” said William Zinsser’s wife in June of 1974. At the time Zinsser lived and worked at Yale; the quintessial academic, where he taught writing and was master of Branford College.
Back then, and some might even say to this day, the dominant ‘writing’ manual was The Elements of Style, by E. B. White and William Strunk Jr. It was essentially a book of pointers and admonitions: Do this, don’t do that.
As principles they were invaluable, suggests Zinsser, but they were only principles, existing without context or reality.
What White’s book didn’t teach was how to apply those principles to the various forms that nonfiction writing can take, each with its special requirements: travel writing, science writing, business writing, the interview, memoir, sports, criticism, humor.
Zinsser taught these various genres at Yale and so sought to produce a ‘manual that wouldn’t compete with The Elements of Style; but complement it.
He began by writing brief chapters on fundamental principles, such as clarity, simplicity, brevity, usage, voice, and the elimination of clutter. Then he settled into the heart of the book—longer chapters explaining how to write a lead, how to write an ending, how to conduct and construct an interview, how to write about travel and technology and sports, and and how to write other forms of nonfiction. What sets Zinsser’s work apart are the many examples included; authors
“widely different in personality and style, but they all wrote well. That was the premise I wanted to establish: that nonfiction is hospitable to an infinite number of voices if the writing is good.”