William Zinsser passed away today at 92. He described the process of writing On Writing Well in detail — and described its legacy:
On Writing Well sold its millionth copy in 2000. (Sales are now approaching 1.5 million.) It was a figure I could hardly believe or even imagine; I’ve never thought of myself as a “best-selling” author, and I’m still surprised to hear that someone knows my name and my books. The numbers that mean the most to me are the hundreds of readers who have written or called just to say how much they like the book and how much it helped them. Surprisingly often they use the phrase “You changed my life.” I don’t take that to mean that they found Buddhist enlightenment or quit smoking. What they mainly mean is that I cleaned out the sludge in their thinking that had paralyzed them from doing writing of any kind—a phobia not unlike the fear of cleaning out the closets or the basement. (The hard part of writing isn’t the writing; it’s the thinking.) Now, they tell me, I’m at their side whenever they write, exhorting them to cut every word or phrase or sentence or paragraph that isn’t doing necessary work. That, finally, is the life-changing message of On Writing Well: simplify your language and thereby find your humanity.