Custodians of Memory

William Zinsser died this week. He was 92. He left behind the classic, "On Writing Well," not only well-known, but much used.

I heard the news of his death on NPR in a brilliant piece that paid homage to Zinsser’s simple rules: “Keep it short” and “read everything you write out loud.”

A few other gems are underscored in my paperback copy. Some may call them truisms, but I think they bear repeating:

—Always collect more material than you will use.
—Simplify, simplify. (He taught us to never stop fighting for freedom from clutter.)
—There are no pat answers.

Zinsser hated adjectives and adverbs and found them “mostly unnecessary.” He wanted us to aspire to “an artless style” that was, of course, “full of art.”

He told us, “Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost.”

All this I remember well. But I was unfamiliar with one of the soundbites in the NPR piece taken from a 2006 interview with Zinsser: “One of the saddest sentences I know is ‘I wish I had asked my mother about that.’ ‘I wish I had asked my father about that.’ Writers are the custodians of memory so it’s extremely important to get to people, interview your parents, your grandparents.” Advice I wish I had taken to heart.

NPR’s host Melissa Block ended the piece with a favorite line from "On Writing Well": “’There’s not much to be said about the period, except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.’” Not a bad closer.