10 Writing Tips from Legendary Writing Teacher William Zinsser

I’m beginning to wonder how it is possible that I managed to successfully navigate a thirty-year publishing career without having actually read William Zinsser.  Of course I had heard of On Writing Well, but amongst the dozens of writing manifestos I have read and recommended over the years, this one slipped under the radar.  Of course, it concerns itself in the main with writing non-fiction, and I have concerned myself for decades with editing mostly fiction–perhaps that accounts for it.  However, having just discovered him, I was dismayed to learn he had recently died.  I felt as if I had been deprived of a friend I had just met.  In this article below for the blog Publication Life, http://publicationlife.com/ , Ted Mills chooses ten tips from the vast store of advice Zinsser offers.  Those interested in the craft of writing will want to acquire a copy and choose their own favorites!

10 Writing Tips from Legendary Writing Teacher William ZinsserAuthor William Zinsser died at his Manhattan home on Tuesday, May 12, 2015. The 92-year-old left behind one of the classics of writing instruction manuals as his legacy,On Writing Well. Since its first printing in 1976, the book has sold 1.5 million copies, and Zinsser made sure to update the book often. He loved the revolution in writing that computers brought, calling it a miracle.

Never have so many Americans written so profusely and with so few inhibitions. Which means that it wasn’t a cognitive problem after all. It was a cultural problem, rooted in that old bugaboo of American education: fear.

Zinsser stressed simplicity and efficiency, but also style and enthusiasm. Here are 10 of his many tips for improving your writing.

1. Don’t make lazy word choices: “You’ll never make your mark as a writer unless you develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive. The English language is rich in strong and supple words. Take the time to root around and find the ones you want.”

2. On the other hand, avoid jargon and big words: “Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English.”

3. Writing is hard work: “A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”

4. Write in the first person: “Writing is an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper, and it will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity.”

5. And the more you keep in first person and true to yourself, the sooner you will find your style: “Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it.”

6. Don’t ask who your audience is…you are the audience: “You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for.”

7. Study the masters but also your contemporaries: “Writing is learned by imitation. If anyone asked me how I learned to write, I’d say I learned by reading the men and women who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it.”

8. Yes, the thesaurus is your friend: “The Thesaurus is to the writer what a rhyming dictionary is to the songwriter–a reminder of all the choices–and you should use it with gratitude. If, having found the scalawag and the scapegrace, you want to know how they differ, then go to the dictionary.”

9. Read everything you write out loud for rhythm and sound: “Good writers of prose must be part poet, always listening to what they write.”

10. And don’t ever believe you are going to write anything definitive: “Decide what corner of your subject you’re going to bite off, and be content to cover it well and stop.”

Zinsser follows his own advice, in that this book (pick up a copy here) is a joy to read, with a rollicking humor and an infectious enthusiasm. May he rest in peace!

Elizabeth Segran recently detailed for FastCompany some fascinating findings about the language and topics used by successful entrants to top universities.  She introduced me to AdmitSee, a startup that invites verified college students to share their application materials with potential applicants. High school students can pay to access AdmitSee’s repository of successful college essays, while college students who share their materials receive a small payment every time someone accesses their data.


Their team analyzesd all of these materials, gathering both qualitative and quantitative findings. And they’ve detailed their insights  about what different elite colleges are looking for in essays. One of the most striking differences they noticed was between successful Harvard and Stanford essays. (AdmitSee had 539 essays from Stanford and 393 from Harvard at the time of the interview, but more trickle in every day.) High-achieving high schoolers frequently apply to both schools—often with the very same essay—but  it appears that there are significant differences between what their respective admissions departments seem to want, so smart applicants will heed and tailor their essays to individual institutions, just as job applicants should tailor their resumes to individual positions they may be applying for.

Here are some  findings from the data:


The terms “father” and “mother” appeared more frequently in successful Harvard essays, while the terms “mom” and “dad” appeared more frequently in successful Stanford essays.

TIP:  This might be a clue as to a preference for more formal language for Harvard, and more relaxed (West Coast) language for Stanford.


AdmitSee found that negative words tended to show up more on essays accepted to Harvard than essays accepted to Stanford.  For example, Shyu says that ‘cancer,’ “difficult,” “hard,” and “tough” appeared more frequently on Harvard essays, while “happy, “passion,” “better,” and “improve” appeared more frequently on Stanford essays.


This statement by AdmitSee had to do with the content of the essays. At Harvard, admitted students tended to write about challenges they had overcome in their life or academic career, while Stanford tended to prefer creative personal stories, or essays about family background or issues that the student cares about. “Extrapolating from this qualitative data, it seems like Stanford is more interested in the student’s personality, while Harvard appears to be more interested in the student’s track record of accomplishment,” Shyu says.

With further linguistic analysis, AdmitSee found that the most common words on Harvard essays were “experience,” “society,” “world,” “success,” “opportunity.” At Stanford, they were “research,” “community,” “knowledge,” “future” and “skill.”


It seems Brown favors essays about volunteer and public interest work, while these topics rank low among successful Yale essays.  Successful Princeton essays, similar to those of Harvard,  often tackle experiences with failure. Meanwhile, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania tend to accept students who write about their career aspirations. Essays about diversity—race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation—tend to be more popular at Stanford, Yale, and Brown.

Based on  AdmitSee’s data, Dartmouth and Columbia don’t appear to have strong biases toward particular essay topics. This means that essays on many subjects were seen favorably by the admissions departments at those schools. However, Shyu says that writing about a moment that changed the student’s life showed up frequently in essays of successful applicants to those schools.



One general insight is that students who take risks with the content and the structure of their college essays tend to be more successful across the board. One student who was admitted to several top colleges wrote about his father’s addiction to pornography and another wrote about a grandparent who was incarcerated, forcing her mother to get food stamps illegally. Weird formats also tend to do well. One successful student wrote an essay tracking how his credit card was stolen, making each point of the credit card’s journey a separate section on the essay and analyzing what each transaction meant. Another’s essay was a list of her favorite books and focused on where each book was purchased.

“One of the big questions our users have is whether they should take a risk with their essay, writing about something that reveals very intimate details about themselves or that takes an unconventional format,” Shyu says. “What we’re finding is that successful essays are not ones that talk about an accomplishment or regurgitate that student’s résumé . The most compelling essays are those that touch on surprising personal topics.”

Of course, one caveat here is that taking a risk only makes sense if the essay is well-executed. Shyu says that the content and structure of the story must make a larger point about the applicant, otherwise it does not serve a purpose. And it goes without saying that the essay must be well-written, with careful attention paid to flow and style.

Shyu says that there are two major takeaways from the company’s data. The first is that it is very valuable for applicants to tailor their essays for different schools, rather than perfecting one essay and using it to apply to every single school. The second is that these essays can offer insight into the culture of the school. “The essays of admitted students are also a reflection of the community at these institutions,” Shyu says. “It can provide insight into whether or not the school is a good fit for that student.

TIP:  customize each essay, and do enough research on each school that the admissions officers are convinced that it is THEIR school you want to attend…and tell them why!

Elizabeth Segran’s final word? If you want to go to Harvard and are writing about your parents, make sure to refer to them as “mother” and “father!”

mother: (muh-th-er) noun

One person who does the work of twenty. For free. See also “masochist” and “saint.”


Mothers are, by and large, sentimental beings.  A crayoned “I LUV U MOMMY” can hold pride of place for decades among a mothers’ treasured possessions, because the sentiment is pure, uncommercial, unsolicited and comes straight from the heart.  It’s the ultimate payback for a mom’s selflessness, devotion and generosity.

Throughout history, giants of politics, academia and literature have paid tribute to their mothers, acknowledging the crucial maternal role in their own development.  Hollywood, too, doesn’t stint on paying tribute to mothers everywhere.  And sometimes, the phrase that hits exactly the right note comes inadvertently from a child, another parent, or a grandparent.

So cruise through a few of these quotes from the famous and not-so-famous, see if one of them seems as if it were written just for YOUR mom….., and add a line or two of your own!

From history:

  1. “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” –Abraham Lincoln 
  1. “My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it.” – Mark Twain
  1. “God could not be everywhere, and therefore he made mothers.” Rudyard Kipling
  1. “Motherhood: All love begins and ends there.” – Robert Browning
  2. “Life began with waking up and loving my mother’s face.” – George Eliot
  3. “There is no velvet so soft as a mother’s lap, no rose as lovely as her smile, no path so flowery as that imprinted with her footsteps.” – Archibald Thompson
  4. “Most mothers are instinctive philosophers.” – Harriet Beecher Stowe
  5. “Mother’s love is peace. It need not be acquired, it need not be deserved.” – Erich Fromm

From Hollywood:

  1. “My mother is a walking miracle.”
    -Leonardo DiCaprio
  2. “Biology is the least of what makes someone a mother.” – Oprah Winfrey
  3. “I got to grow up with a mother who taught me to believe in me.” – Antonio Villaraigosa
  4. “Is my mother my friend? I would have to say, first of all she is my Mother, with a capital ‘M’; she’s something sacred to me. I love her dearly…yes, she is also a good friend.” – Sophia Loren
  5. “Insanity is hereditary; you get it from your children.” – Sam Levenson
  6. “With what price we pay for the glory of motherhood.” – Isadora Duncan

From the heart:

  1. Mothers hold their children’s hands for a short while, but their hearts forever. – Author Unknown
  2. “I realized when you look at your mother, you are looking at the purest love you will ever know.” –Mitch Albom
  3. “For enduring the bloodcurdling torture of my adolescent years I promise to always keep your electronics functional.”–Unknown
  4. The only thing better than having you for a mom is my children have you for a grandmother
  5. Sooner or later, we all quote our mothers….-Unknown
  6. “Mothers hold their children’s hands for a short while, but their hearts forever.” –Unknown
  7. A mom is like a tea bag. Only hot water do you realize how strong she is “
  8. “The phrase ‘working mother’ is redundant.”  –Jane Sellman 
  9. “If nature had arranged that husbands and wives should have children alternatively, there would never be more than three in a family.” – Lawrence Housman
  10. “All mothers are working mothers.” – Unknown
  11. “A man loves his sweetheart the most, his wife the best, but his mother the longest.” – Irish Proverb
  12. “Who’s a boy gonna talk to if not his mother?” – Donald E. Westlake
  13. “Children are a great comfort in your old age — and they help you reach it faster, too.” – Lionel Kauffman
  14. “The one thing children wear out faster than shoes is parents.” – John J. Plomp
  15. “A man’s work is from sun to sun, but a mother’s work is never done.” – Unknown
  16. To the world you are a mother, but to your family you are the world. Mom provides a place to feel at home, no matter where she happens to be.—Author Unknown