First, use plain English

The author of On Writing Well recalls how he taught Yale students to cut through the clutter.

William Zinsser's On Writing Well, which has sold more than 1.3 million copies, grew out of the nonfiction writing course he originated at Yale in 1971 and taught there every year until 1979. This article about the course is adapted from his book Writing Places (HarperCollins), to be published in May.

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

Zinsser, 86, writing in his office in midtown Manhattan this February. View full image

I gave my writing course a plain title, "Nonfiction Workshop." I wanted to serve notice that it was a craft course and that I had no fancy aspirations; the word "postmodern" was unlikely to be heard in class, or any mention of the human condition. My aim was to teach Yale students to write clearly and warmly about the world they lived in.

The framework would be journalistic, "journalism" being defined as writing that appears in any periodic journal—as, for example, Lewis Thomas's elegant book of science essays, The Lives of a Cell, first appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the book that launched the environmental movement, first ran as a series of articles in the New Yorker. Neither Thomas nor Carson was a "writer"; one was a physician, the other an aquatic biologist. But they knew enough about writing to make complex subjects clear and enjoyable— and useful—to ordinary readers. That's what I wanted for my students.

My course was listed in the Yale course catalogue for the 1971 winter term. It was limited by the English department to 15 students, that being the generally regarded optimum size. Teaching writing is a hands-on task. Writing can't be learned from a lecture in which grand truths are handed down. Those truths only get learned when a student's failure to observe them is pointed out in his or her writing.

But a funny thing happened on the way to registration: 170 students signed up for "Nonfiction Workshop." That came as an astonishment to the English department, which was then the high temple of "deconstruction" and other faddish studies in the clinical analysis of texts. The great writers on the Yale faculty weren't the theory-obsessed English professors. They were the history professors—strong stylists like Edmund Morgan, C. Vann Woodward, Jonathan Spence ’61, ’65PhD, George Pierson ’26, ’33PhD, John Morton Blum, and Gaddis Smith ’54, ’61PhD, who understood that their knowledge could only be handed down if they imposed on the past an act of storytelling, one that had a strong narrative pull and a robust cast of characters.

Reading the student applications for my course and interviewing the applicants, I heard a hunger for reality: "Help me to organize and express my thoughts." During the permissive Sixties their high school teachers had urged them to "let it all hang out," regardless of grammar or syntax. Now they found that they had come to college deprived of the basic tools for writing expository prose.

Making the initial cut was easy—I gave priority to seniors and juniors, whose time at Yale was running out. That still left many hard choices. I didn't want the class to be dominated by aspiring journalists: Yale Daily News hotshots and former editors of their high school paper. They deserved to take the course, and over the years many did. Some, like Mark Singer ’72, Christopher Buckley ’75, and Jane Mayer ’77, became major writers of articles and books. Others became influential editors: John S. Rosenberg ’75, editor of Harvard Magazine; Roger Cohn ’73, editor of Audubon and Mother Jones; Kit Rachlis ’74, editor of Los Angeles magazine; David Sleeper ’75, founder of Vermont Magazine; Kevin McKean ’74, editorial director of Consumer Reports; Dan Denton ’75, founder of several magazines in the Sarasota area; Janice Kaplan ’76, editor of Parade, and Corby Kummer ’78, senior editor of the Atlantic and a respected food writer. I didn't teach him anything about food—one reason for his success.

But I also wanted generalists—men and women majoring in a broad range of arts and sciences; I was looking for the next Oliver Sacks as much as the next Gay Talese. I accepted one senior history major, Lawrie Mifflin ’73, because I was struck by her interest in sports. As a member of Yale's first contingent of women, she had been an activist for the formation of women's teams—an idea that the administration hadn't leaped to embrace. ("Field hockey? At Yale?") I felt that sports was rich terrain for nonfiction writers; some of the country's most intractable social problems were being played out there: women's rights, drugs, steroids, racism, violence, betting, huge television contracts, the financial seduction of college athletes, and many more. I wanted those issues to be aired in the class.

As it turned out, Lawrie Mifflin would make history of her own, eventually becoming the first female sportswriter on the New York Daily News. She covered the New York Rangers for eight seasons, first for the News and then for the New York Times, where she later was deputy sports editor for five years. She also covered the New York Cosmos during the Pele years, and at various Olympic games she became an expert on gymnastics, diving, and horse show jumping.

Another chance discovery was a blue-eyed Irish kid named John Tierney ’75, whom I met one night in 1972 at a student social hour. The freshmen of Calhoun College had been exiled to a remote annex during a renovation of the Old Campus, and fellows were encouraged to drop in and make them feel less forsaken. I got to talking with Tierney, who told me he had come to Yale to major in mathematics. But as he talked I detected a most unmathematical vein of humor. He asked what I was doing at Yale, and he said he thought that would be interesting work. Could he take my course? Maybe later, I said; he was only a freshman.

But when the next term came around I couldn't resist letting him in. The writing he did was fresh and he had a bent for science. After graduating from Yale he would become a freelance science reporter for Esquire, Newsweek, and Rolling Stone and would write humor pieces for the Atlantic, Playboy, Spy, and Outside. In 1990 he was hired by the New York Times as a general-assignment reporter and later became a columnist on its op-ed page. One day in the 1990s I met him in New York at an antiques show with his parents, who were visiting from Pittsburgh. Hearing my name, his mother, a longtime schoolteacher, threw her arms around me in a hug of maternal gratitude. I had saved her son from being a mathematician.