Remembering William Zinsser

books

In 1980, fresh out of Wharton, I got a job at Book-Of-The-Month Club. The editors who ran BOMC didn’t want to hire an MBA, but they had recently been acquired by Time, Inc. and the numbers guys there thought it was a good idea to have one. Like a gnome in the garden or a jockey at the front gate.

For my interview, the President and Executive VP took me to lunch at the Four Seasons. I was too naïve to know how unusual that was, but I was not unimpressed by my surroundings. (The memory of that deeply-chocolate, creamy, flourless chocolate cake will forever be on my tongue, like a tattoo of an old romance. But that’s a topic for another time.) They didn’t ask me many pointed questions. It was more of a chat between three people incongruously invited to the same party.

Then, with some skepticism, the President asked, “Why do you want to work at Book-of-the-Month Club?

I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about my MBA either. I got it because I wanted to be gainfully employed. Business was only a means to that end, but books were my passion. I replied, “If I’m going to be selling something, I’d rather sell books than potato chips.”

I got the job, but, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, there was no job there. They hired me, but they were damned if they knew what to do with me. I had to sell myself every day, inventing projects and persuading club managers to take me on. So I was, shall we say, in full false-confidence, car-salesman mode when one of the managers called me into his office.

“In this memo,” he said, “you put an apostrophe after the year, 81’ and it goes before the number, to show that something was left out.”

“I’ve seen it both ways,” I said, determined to hold my ground against anyone who wanted to take the MBA down a peg.

We argued. Remaining polite, but at the end, agreeing to disagree. A concept I now find intolerable.

I went back to my office and pulled out my copy of “On Writing Well” to see who was right. I glanced at the author’s name. William Zinsser. My heart stopped, turned cold, and settled somewhere south of my stomach. Could Bill Zinsser, the man I just argued apostrophes with, be THE William Zinsser?

He was.

I returned to his office with my humility pinned securely to my coat. The fire-breathing dragon I anticipated finding was a gentleman through and through. He took me to lunch.

For the rest of my time at BOMC, he answered my questions with patience and equanimity and I never, ever, argued.

William Zinsser died yesterday, at home, at the age of 92. If you want to honor him – if you care anything about writing with clarity and precision – read his classic, “On Writing Well.”

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Remembering William Zinsser

  1. Michael Moroney

    Having your copy edited by him was also very humbling. Some of the copywriters thought he depersonalized the copy. I was just embarrassed by the amount of clutter he found. I always recommend his book to anyone who wants to write.

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