First, use plain English

1979 <i>Yale Banner</i>

1979 Yale Banner

From 1973 to 1979 Zinsser was master of Branford College (right, at a college gathering). View full image

It was the generalists who gave the class its breadth. Although they weren't journalism-bound, they were eager to learn to write well for whatever career they might pursue. One female student, Perry Howze ’75, would find time among her other jobs to cowrite the movie Mystic Pizza. A rock musician, Gary Lucas ’74, said he was proud of the "discursive style and rhetorical flourishes" that had won him a writing award in high school. I showed him how to get rid of those award-winning elements and urged him to write about rock music. He did, and immediately began to sell rock reviews and articles to the Village Voice and various music magazines. Many years later, in New York, between European tours, he would call and invite me to one of his gigs in a downtown club. The club was not easy to find, carved out of some pitch-dark Greenwich Village cellar, nor was Gary, clad in black and enveloped in the blackness of the room. But when he played his guitar he was a man totally fulfilled in his chosen work.

A law-minded student, Roanne L. Mann ’72, would become a federal magistrate judge at the United States District Court in Brooklyn. Asked to recall my class, she said: "My work as a judge requires that I communicate clearly in my written opinions. I cannot prove a direct connection between my judicial style and an undergraduate journalism course I took many years ago. Nevertheless, Bill Zinsser's class was one of the highlights of my years at Yale, and, as we say in the trade, one may reasonably infer that it had its intended effect."

The class met in a small room in Calhoun College. All the residential colleges had seminar rooms somewhere in their Gothic innards, many of them architecturally surprising in their homage to some long-vanished English ideal. In those rooms, I did a lot of thinking about how writing gets learned and taught and nourished.

I don't recall that I brought to the course any pedagogical scheme. I would teach mainly out of my own experience; what had worked for me as a journalist would probably work for my students. What I would teach would be good English—not good journalism, or good science English, or good sports English, or any other kind of English. I would teach the plain declarative sentence and the active Anglo-Saxon verb. Passive verbs would be discouraged; so would Latinate nouns like "implementation." Clarity would be the main prize, along with simplicity and brevity: short words and short sentences. My favorite stylists would be invoked: the King James Bible, Abraham Lincoln, Henry David Thoreau, E. B. White, Red Smith.

On those plain precepts my little craft set sail. Every week I assigned a paper in one of the forms that nonfiction commonly takes: the interview, the technical or scientific or medical article, the business article, the sports article, the humor piece, the critical review, writing about a place. I would explain the pitfalls and special requirements of the genre, often reading one of my own pieces to demonstrate how I had tried to solve the problem, or reading passages by writers I admired who had brought distinction to a particular form: Alan Moorehead, Joan Didion, V. S. Pritchett, Norman Mailer, Garry Wills ’61PhD, Virgil Thomson. I wanted my students to know that nonfiction has an honorable literature—they were entering the land of H. L. Mencken and George Orwell and Joseph Mitchell.

Mitchell had been the most influential journalist for nonfiction writers of my generation. His long New Yorker articles about the New York waterfront were gems of reporting and humanity; the "ordinary" people he wrote about were never patronized or judged. But he had perversely allowed his books to go out of print, and the students in my class had never heard of him until I brought in some passages to read. One of those young men, Mark Singer, would grow up to be Mitchell's heir in his own generation; his New Yorker portraits of assorted rogues and brigands and mountebanks make their point with a dry amusement, not with censure. Several years after Mitchell died in 1996, at the age of 87, Singer wrote a commemorative piece in the New Yorker that mentioned where he first heard about him. I like to think that in some seminar room at Yale today there's a student who will grow up to be the next Mark Singer.

When I first taught my course I assumed that I would achieve most of my teaching with my didactic little talk explaining the form that the students had been assigned next. I sent them forth to do a travel piece or a sports piece or an interview in full confidence that they would apply all the hard-won principles I had so lucidly imparted. But when their papers came back, only about 20 percent of those principles had made it onto the page; pitfalls I had specifically warned against were repeatedly fallen into. The moral was clear: crafts don't get learned by listening. If you want to be an auto mechanic you take an engine apart and reassemble it, and the teacher points out that you have put the carburetor in wrong. I would need to get my hands dirty making sure every carburetor was properly installed.

After that I began every class by reading aloud good and bad examples from student papers of the previous week. Perpetrators of bad examples were never identified; the rest were named and praised. Writers, I learned, are one of nature's most unconfident species, in constant need of assurance that they are not doomed souls. After class I handed back the students' papers with my corrections and comments and encouragements. That's where the real work got done.

The overwhelming sin was clutter. It was in that Yale class that I became a fierce enemy of every word or phrase or sentence or paragraph in a piece of writing that wasn't doing necessary work. To this day, what my students most vividly remember was my pruning of the weeds that were smothering what they wanted to say. One of those students, Katie Leishman ’76, who would become a prolific writer of medical articles, recalled many years later that


  • Bill Zinsser's process went beyond editing. What demanded removal was often material that a competent editor would leave untouched. The stuff wasn't always badly written; it often sounded great. The hitch was, it wasn't true.
  • Not that it was factually inaccurate. It just wasn't genuine for a particular student. Somehow Bill was able to coax us towards that self-recognition. Few editors can. Besides, it's something a writer has to realize alone.
  • Today I still wonder why you can never internalize the exercise, why you can't stop yourself before the nonsense is on paper. You have to see it to reject it. It's like an immune response: if it doesn't feel like you, it has to go. In Bill's vision, once the clutter (and the baloney) are gone, the writer emerges and the work acquires its force. Anything—from African violets to nuclear physics—can be explained to a reasonably thoughtful reader. Anything can be made interesting.
  • Bill showed us that good writers are inimitable, and why. It is the choice of language, of course, but it is also the use of time. He introduces us to writers who wrote an aphorism a day, and others who had a Sunday newspaper column, and still others who produced an article every five years. Writers pace themselves differently and are drawn to different subjects accordingly. That connection, he taught us, should be honored.


The Yale English department, acting with a speed wholly uncharacteristic of college English departments, saw what was happening and jumped aboard the train. As a stopgap it hired several New York editors to come to New Haven and teach courses that roughly replicated mine. Then it went about establishing its own strong program of expository writing. What all of us learned was that organizing and writing a nonfiction paper is largely untaught in American schools and colleges. (It still is.) Yale responded promptly to that dismal news, and its commitment to nonfiction writing, including a writing tutor in every residential college, has been in place ever since.  

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