William Zinsser

William Zinsser is the author of many books on writing, including the widely acclaimed best seller “On Writing Well“.  He is also an English teacher who is now teaching at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.  As presented in The American Scholar, here’s his talk to the incoming international students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in the fall of 2009.  A very engaging and opinionated viewpoint, his principles for writing well in English have little to do with grammar and grandiosity and everything to do with keeping it simple, clear, logical and concise.  Below, I highlighted a few select snippets from his talk, but you can read the entire article here from the source, if it interests you.


So what is good English—the language we’re here today to wrestle with?


It has a huge vocabulary of words that have precise shades of meaning; there’s no subject, however technical or complex, that can’t be made clear to any reader in good English—if it’s used right. Unfortunately, there are many ways of using it wrong. Those are the damaging habits I want to warn you about today.

First, a little history. The English language is derived from two main sources. One is Latin, the florid language of ancient Rome. The other is Anglo-Saxon, the plain languages of England and northern Europe. The words derived from Latin are the enemy—they will strangle and suffocate everything you write. The Anglo-Saxon words will set you free.

How do those Latin words do their strangling and suffocating? In general they are long, pompous nouns that end in -ion—like implementation and maximization and communication (five syllables long!)—or that end in -ent—like development and fulfillment. Those nouns express a vague concept or an abstract idea, not a specific action that we can picture—somebody doing something. Here’s a typical sentence: “Prior to the implementation of the financial enhancement.” That means “Before we fixed our money problems.”

Believe it or not, this is the language that people in authority in America routinely use—officials in government and business and education and social work and health care. They think those long Latin words make them sound important. It no longer rains in America; your TV weatherman will tell that you we’re experiencing a precipitation probability situation.


Let me read you three typical letters I recently received in the mail. (I keep letters like this and save them in a folder that I call “Bullshit File.”)

The first one is from the president of a private club in New York. It says, “Dear member: The board of governors has spent the past year considering proactive efforts that will continue to professionalize the club and to introduce efficiencies that we will be implementing throughout 2009.” That means they’re going to try to make the club run better.

Here’s a letter to alumni from the head of the New England boarding school I attended when I was a boy. “As I walk around the Academy,” she writes, “and see so many gifted students interacting with accomplished, dedicated adults” [that means boys and girls talking to teachers] and consider the opportunities for learning that such interpersonal exchanges will yield…” Interpersonal exchanges! Pure garbage. Her letter is meant to assure us alumni that the school is in good hands. I’m not assured. One thing I know is that she shouldn’t be allowed near the English department, and I’m not sure she should even be running the school. Remember: how you write is how you define yourself to people who meet you only through your writing. If your writing is pretentious, that’s how you’ll be perceived. The reader has no choice.

Here’s one more—a letter from the man who used to be my broker; now he’s my investment counsel. He says, “As we previously communicated, we completed a systems conversion in late September. Data conversions involve extra processing and reconciliation steps [translation: it took longer than we thought it would to make our office operate better]. We apologize if you were inconvenienced as we completed the verification process [we hope we’ve got it right now]. “Further enhancements will be introduced in the next calendar quarter” [we’re still working on it]. Notice those horrible long Latin words: communicated, conversion,reconciliation, enhancements, verification. There’s not a living person in any one of them.


So if those are the bad nouns, what are the good nouns? The good nouns are the thousands of short, simple, infinitely old Anglo-Saxon nouns that express the fundamentals of everyday life: house, home, child, chair, bread,milk, sea, sky, earth, field, grass, road … words that are in our bones, words that resonate with the oldest truths. When you use those words, you make contact—consciously and also subconsciously—with the deepest emotions and memories of your readers. Don’t try to find a noun that you think sounds more impressive or “literary.” Short Anglo-Saxon nouns are your second-best tools as a journalist writing in English.

What are your best tools? Your best tools are short, plain Anglo-Saxon verbs. I mean active verbs, not passive verbs. If you could write an article using only active verbs, your article would automatically have clarity and warmth and vigor.

Let’s go back to school for a minute and make sure you remember the difference between an active verb and a passive verb. An active verb denotes one specific action: JOHN SAW THE BOYS. The event only happened once, and we always know who did what: it was John who activated the verb SAW. A passive-voice sentence would say: THE BOYS WERE SEEN BY JOHN. It’s longer. It’s weaker: it takes three words (WERE SEEN BY instead of SAW), and it’s not as exact.


Henry David Thoreau

One of my favorite writers is Henry David Thoreau, who wrote one of the great American books, Walden, in 1854, about the two years he spent living—and thinking—in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau’s writing moves with simple strength because he uses one active verb after another to push his meaning along. At every point in his sentences you know what you need to know. Here’s a famous sentence from Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of nature, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Look at all those wonderful short, active verbs: went, wished, front, see, learn, die,discover. We understand exactly what Thoreau is saying. We also know a lot abouthim—about his curiosity and his vitality. How alive Thoreau is in that sentence! It’s an autobiography in 44 words—39 of which are words of one syllable. Think about that: only five words in that long, elegant sentence have more than one syllable. Short is always better than long.

Now let me turn that sentence into the passive:

A decision was made to go to the woods because of a desire for a deliberate existence and for exposure to only the essential facts of life, and for possible instruction in its educational elements, and because of a concern that at the time of my death the absence of a meaningful prior experience would be apprehended.

All the life has been taken out of the sentence. But what’s the biggest thing I’ve taken out of that sentence? I’ve taken Thoreau out of that sentence. He’s nowhere to be seen. I’ve done it just by turning all the active verbs into passive verbs. Every time I replaced one of Thoreau’s active verbs with a passive verb I also had to add a noun to make the passive verb work. “I went to the woods because” became “A decision was made.” I had to add the noun decision. “To see if I could learn what it had to teach—two terrific verbs, learn and teach; we’ve all learned and we’ve all been taught—became “for possible instruction.” Can you hear how dead those Latin nouns are that end in i-o-n?  Decision. Instruction. They have no people in them doing something.

So fall in love with active verbs. They are your best friends.

Ihave four principles of writing good English. They are Clarity, Simplicity, Brevity, and Humanity.

First, Clarity. If it’s not clear you might as well not write it. You might as well stay in bed.

Two: Simplicity. Simple is good. Most students from other countries don’t know that. When I read them a sentence that I admire, a simple sentence with short words, they think I’m joking. “Oh, Mr. Zinsser, you’re so funny,” a bright young woman from Nigeria told me. “If I wrote sentences like that, people would think I’m stupid.” Stupid like Thoreau, I want to say. Or stupid like E. B. White. Or like the King James Bible. Listen to this passage from the book of Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all. [Look at all those wonderful plain nouns: race, battle, bread, riches, favor, time, chance.]

Abraham Lincoln

Or stupid like Abraham Lincoln, whom I consider our greatest American writer. Here’s Lincoln addressing the nation in his Second Inaugural Address as president, in 1865, at the end of the long, terrible, exhausting Civil War:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right [eleven straight one-syllable words], let us strive on [active verb] to finish the work we are in, to bind up [active verb] the nation’s wounds, to care [active verb] for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan [specific nouns],—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.


So remember: Simple is good. Writing is not something you have to embroider with fancy stitches to make yourself look smart.

Principle number 3. Brevity. Short is always better than long. Short sentences are better than long sentences. Short words are better than long words. Don’t saycurrently if you can say now. Don’t say assistance if you can say help. Don’t saynumerous if you can say many. Don’t say facilitate if you can say ease. Don’t call someone an individual [five syllables!]; that’s a person, or a man or a woman. Don’t implement or prioritize. Don’t say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. Writing is talking to someone else on paper or on a screen.

Which brings me to my fourth principle: Humanity. Be yourself. Never try in your writing to be someone you’re not. Your product, finally, is you. Don’t lose that person by putting on airs, trying to sound superior.

There are many modern journalists I admire for their strong, simple style, whom I could recommend to you as models. Two who come to mind are Gay Talese and Joan Didion.


Joan Didion

..here’s Joan Didion, who grew up in California and wrote brilliant magazine pieces about its trashy lifestyle in the 1960s. No anthropologist caught it better. This passage is from her collection of early magazine pieces, Slouching Toward Bethlehem.

There are always little girls around rock groups—the same little girls who used to hang around saxophone players, girls who lived on the celebrity and power and sex a band projects when it plays—and there are three of them out here this afternoon in Sausalito where the Grateful Dead rehearse. They are all pretty and two of them still have baby fat and one of them dances by herself with her eyes closed [perfect simple image]. . . .


I’ve given you these examples because writing is learned by imitation. We all need models. Bach needed a model; Picasso needed a model. Make a point of reading writers who are doing the kind of writing you want to do. (Many of them write forThe New Yorker.) Study their articles clinically. Try to figure out how they put their words and sentences together. That’s how I learned to write, not from a writing course.


The epidemic I’m most worried about isn’t swine flu. It’s the death of logical thinking. The cause, I assume, is that most people now get their information from random images on a screen—pop-ups, windows, and sidebars—or from scraps of talk on a digital phone. But writing is linear and sequential; Sentence B must follow Sentence A, and Sentence C must follow Sentence B, and eventually you get to Sentence Z. The hard part of writing isn’t the writing; it’s the thinking. You can solve most of your writing problems if you stop after every sentence and ask: What does the reader need to know next?”

One maxim that my students find helpful is: One thought per sentence. Readers only process one thought at a time. So give them time to digest the first set of facts you want them to know. Then give them the next piece of information they need to know, which further explains the first fact. Be grateful for the period. Writing is so hard that all of us, once launched, tend to ramble. Instead of a period we use a comma, followed by a transitional word (andwhile), and soon we have strayed into a wilderness that seems to have no road back out. Let the humble period be your savior. There’s no sentence too short to be acceptable in the eyes of God.


Please remember, in moments of despair, whatever journalistic assignment you’ve been given, all you have to do is tell a story, using the simple tools of the English language and never losing your own humanity.

Repeat after me:
Short is better than long.
Simple is good. (
Long Latin nouns are the enemy.
Anglo-Saxon active verbs are your best friend.
One thought per sentence.

Good luck to you all.