On Friday, family, friends, and legions of former students will gather in a church in New York to celebrate the life of William Zinsser, whose On Writing Well has sold more than 1.5 million copies and taught several generations of writers how to bring clarity, simplicity, specificity, and, most of all, their own voices to their writing. Like his devoted readers, his encouraging voice is the one I hear when I'm stuck on an article, and like his many former students, his red pen is the one I try to wield when revising my pieces, the hundreds of Atlantic stories I've edited, and now the many students whose writing I edit.
They will gather in the same church where we celebrated the life of his mother, Joyce Knowlton Zinsser, just a year after he and I drove together to New York City from New Haven to start new lives—he to edit the magazine of the Book-of-the-Month Club and me, about two days past getting a diploma, to be a junior editor at a magazine. At the time, he was already an experienced critic, columnist, feature writer, teacher, editor, and longtime master of a Yale residential college, Branford, which he made a center of journalistic activity. When we arrived in New York, he had introduced me to his mother, who in turn helped welcome me to the city. When I walked down the church aisle at her funeral, he hugged me—an unexpected gesture from someone who had for so long been my teacher and who had relatively recently become a friend, and yet a gesture that was completely characteristic. Bill's life was to be open, welcoming, approving. I'd been lucky enough to experience that from his mother, an avid reader whose delight in reading I could see in her son. She wanted only news of the outside world when I visited, and was little interested in the past.