William Zinsser Writing Quotes

William Zinsser has taught generations of writers the basics of writing well. In this article, we will look at some of his best quotes, drawn from a variety of sources including his books, interviews, and blog.

His quotes offer insight on various issues that you may face as a writer including:

  • How do you become a better writer?
  • What are the benefits of writing?
  • Why should you write what you love?

If you want to learn more about William Zinsser, check out his quick biography.

Quotes on Reasons for Writing

1. We write to find out what we know and what we want to say. I thought of how often as a writer I had made clear to myself some subject I had previously known nothing about by just putting one sentence after another. – Writing to Learn, 1988

2. The writer’s job is like solving a puzzle, and finally arriving at a solution is a tremendous satisfaction – On Writing Well, 1976

3. Writing enables us to find out what we know -and what we don’t know -about whatever we’re trying to learn. – Writing to Learn, 1988

4. Writing is the handmaiden of leadership; Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill rode to glory on the back of the strong declarative sentence – Writing to Learn, 1988

5. All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem. – On Writing Well, 1976

6. Writing is a way to explore a question and gain control over it – Writing to Learn, 1988

7. Writing is an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper, and it will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity- On Writing Well, 1976

8. Another reason [for writing] is to paint a portrait of the town or community, now considerably changed, where you grew up. Somewhere on the shelves of every American small-town library and historical society is a makeshift volume, often written by a retired schoolteacher that resuscitates a bygone way of life. – American Scholar Blog, February 18, 2011

9. Writing is also a potent search mechanism, often as helpful as psychoanalysis and a lot cheaper. When you start on your memoir you’ll find your subconscious mind delivering your past to you, recalling people and events you have entirely forgotten. That voyage of rediscovery is a pleasure in itself. – American Scholar Blog, February 18, 2011

10. Writing is a sanity-saving companion for people in times of grief, loss, illness, and other accidents of fate. Just getting down on paper those grim details…will validate your ordeal and make you feel less alone. – American Scholar Blog, February 18, 2011

11. Contrary to general belief, writing isn’t something that only “writers” do; writing is a basic skill for getting through life. – Writing to Learn, 1988

12. Reasoning is a lost skill of the children of the TV generation, with their famously short attention span. Writing can help them get it back. – Writing to Learn, 1988

13. Writers may write for any number of good personal reasons -ego, therapy, recollection, validation of their lives. But what they produce will have a validity of its own to the extent that it’s useful to somebody else. – Writing to Learn, 1988

Quotes on Writing as a Way of Clarify Thinking

14. Writing organizes and clarifies our thoughts. Writing is how we think our way into a subject and make it our own. – Writing to Learn, 1988

15. Clear writing is the logical arrangement of thought; a scientist who thinks clearly can write as well as the best writer. – Writing to Learn, 1988

16. I thought of how often the act of writing even the simplest document -a letter, for instance -had clarified my half-formed ideas. Writing and thinking and learning were the same process. – Writing to Learn, 1988

17. Writing organizes and clarifies our thoughts. Writing is how we think our way into a subject and make it our own. Writing enables us to find out what we know -and what we don’t know -about whatever we’re trying to learn. – Writing to Learn, 1988

18. Putting an idea into written words is like defrosting the windshield: The idea, so vague out there in the murk, slowly begins to gather itself into a sensible shape. Whatever we write -a memo, a letter, a note to the baby-sitter -all of us know this moment of finding out what we really want to say by trying in writing to say it. – Writing to Learn, 1988

19. Probably no subject is too hard if people take the trouble to think and write and read clearly. – Writing to Learn, 1988

20. Writing is thinking on paper, or talking to someone on paper. If you can think clearly, or if you can talk to someone about the things you know and care about, you can write – with confidence and enjoyment. – On Writing Well, 1976

Quotes on How To Write Well

21. You must find some way to elevate your act of writing into entertainment. – On Writing Well, 1976

22. The hardest column to write was the one that taught me the most. – American Scholar Blog, April 29, 2011

23. Make a habit of reading what is being written today and what has been written before. Writing is learned by imitation. – On Writing Well, 1976

24. Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose. – On Writing Well, 1976

25. Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience -every reader is a different person. – On Writing Well, 1976

26. Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one cannot exist without the other. – On Writing Well, 1976

27. Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice. – On Writing Well, 1976

28. The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. – On Writing Well, 1976

29. So decide what single point you want to leave in the reader’s mind. It will not only give you a better idea of what route you should follow and what destination you hope to reach; it will affect your decision about tone and attitude. – On Writing Well, 1976

30. Much of the trouble that writers get into comes from trying to make one sentence do too much work. Never be afraid to break a long sentence into two short ones, or even three. – On Writing Well, 1976

31. Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there. – On Writing Well, 1976

32. “Who am I writing for?” You are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience -every reader is a different person. – On Writing Well, 1976

33. Thinking clearly is a conscious act that writers must force on themselves- On Writing Well, 1976

34. Constantly ask yourself: “What am I trying to say?” Then look at what you have written and ask if you have said it. – On Writing Well, 1976

35. Never hesitate to imitate another writer – every person learning a craft or an art needs models. Eventually you’ll find your own voice and will shed the skin of the writer you imitated. – On Writing Well, 1976

36. The best way to learn to write is to study the work of the men and women who are doing the kind of writing you want to do. – On Writing Well, 1976

37. The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis. – On Writing Well, 1976

38. Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost. – On Writing Well, 1976

39. I don’t do tips…It’s not that I don’t have any; On Writing Well, 1976 is full of what might be called tips. But that’s not the point of the book. It’s a book of craft principles that add up to what it means to be a writer Tips can make someone a better writer but not necessarily a good writer. That’s a larger package –a matter of character. – American Scholar Blog, November 5, 2010

40. Golfing is more than keeping the left arm straight. Every good golfer is a complex engine that runs on ability, ego, determination, discipline, patience, confidence, and other qualities that are self-taught. So it is with writers and all creative artists. If their values are solid their work is likely to be solid. – American Scholar Blog, November 5, 2010

41. The essence of writing is rewriting. Very few writers say on their first try exactly what they want to say. – Writing to Learn, 1988

42. Writing is learned by imitation. I learned to write mainly by reading writers who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and by trying to figure out how they did it. – Writing to Learn, 1988

43. Students often feel guilty about modeling their writing on someone else’s writing. They think it’s unethical—which is commendable. Or they’re afraid they’ll lose their own identity. The point, however, is that we eventually move beyond our models; we take what we need and then we shed those skins and become who we are supposed to become. – Writing to Learn, 1988

44. He may have been a little high. Beware of dashing. “Effortless” articles that look as if they were dashed off are the result of strenuous effort. A piece of writing must be viewed as a constantly evolving organism. – Writing to Learn, 1988

45. The English language is endlessly supple. It will do anything you ask it to do, if you treat it well.  – American Scholar Blog, March 11, 2011

Quotes on What It Takes To Be a Successful Writer

46. 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. Use its energy to keep yourself going. – On Writing Well, 1976

47. 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. It’s one of the hardest things that people do. – On Writing Well, 1976

48. A writer will do anything to avoid the act of writing- On Writing Well, 1976

49. Nobody becomes Tom Wolfe overnight, not even Tom Wolfe- On Writing Well, 1976

Quotes on Being Authentic When Writing

50. Write about things that are important to you, not about what you think readers will want to read. Readers don’t know what they want to read until they read it. If it’s important to you it will be important to other people. – American Scholar Blog, August 13, 2010

51. Be yourself and your readers will follow you anywhere. Try to commit an act of writing and your readers will jump overboard to get away. Your product is you. – On Writing Well, 1976

52. If you write for yourself, you’ll reach all the people you want to write for. – On Writing Well, 1976

53. 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. – On Writing Well, 1976

54. Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself. – On Writing Well, 1976

55. I don’t think you should never worry what people think of you. I think you should write whatever you’re writing, you should write entirely for yourself. Don’t try to think what editors want, what publishers want, what agents want. They don’t really know until they see it. So I think the important thing is to get it down. – NPR, 2015

56. As a teacher and as a mentor I give people permission to be who they want to be. – American Scholar Blog, June 4, 2010

57. You must give yourself permission, by a daily act of will, to believe in your remembered truth. Do not remain nameless to yourself. Only you can turn on the switch; nobody is going to do it for you. – American Scholar Blog, June 4, 2010

58. Nobody can make us write what we don’t want to write. – American Scholar Blog, November 5, 2010

Quotes on Education

59. Most Americans look back on their education as a permission-denying experience –a long trail of don’ts and can’ts and shouldn’ts. – American Scholar Blog, June 4, 2010

60. Consider the countless hours we require our children to attend classes and tutoring sessions whose sole purpose is to teach them how to pass college entrance tests–a body of knowledge wholly useless to their growth. – American Scholar Blog, June 4, 2010

61. The fear of writing is planted in countless people at an early age -often, ironically, by English teachers, who make science-minded kids feel stupid for not being “good at words,” just as science teachers make people like me feel stupid for not being good at science. – Writing to Learn, 1988

62. Writing, however, isn’t a special language that belongs to English teachers and a few other sensitive souls who have a “gift for words.” Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly should be able to write clearly -about any subject at all. – Writing to Learn, 1988

63. Yet most American adults are terrified of the prospect -ask a middle-aged engineer to write a report and you’ll see something close to panic. – Writing to Learn, 1988

Quotes on Working on What You Love and What Is Meaningful to You

64. Motivation is crucial to writing -students will write far more willingly if they write about subjects that interest them and that they have an aptitude for. – Writing to Learn, 1988

65. Try not to acquiesce too quickly in projects that you know aren’t right for who you are. Think about other financial solutions that will free you to focus on the primary task of becoming a writer. – American Scholar Blog, June 3, 2011

66. Give more thought to the longer trajectory of your life. Your most important work-in-progress is not the story you’re working on now. Your most important work-in-progress is you. – American Scholar Blog, June 3, 2011

67. I often think I’m the only teacher who talks about enjoyment as a crucial ingredient in writing. My students seem puzzled that I keep coming back to the subject. – American Scholar Blog, May 14, 2010

68. Writing is serious! Most writers take the act of writing with grim solemnity, fearful that they won’t be worthy of the gods of literature scowling down from Mount Parnassus. Or is it that they take themselves so seriously? – American Scholar Blog, May 14, 2010

69. When I write I make a conscious effort to generate a sense of enjoyment –to convey to my readers that I found the events I’m describing more than ordinarily interesting, or unusual, or amusing, or emotional, or bizarre. Otherwise why bother to describe them? – American Scholar Blog, May 14, 2010

70. I also try to convey the idea that I was feeling great when I did my writing –which I almost never was; writing well is hard work. But readers have a right to believe that you were having a good time taking them on your chosen voyage. – American Scholar Blog, May 14, 2010

71. Only when the job was over did I enjoy it. I don’t like to write, but I take great pleasure in having written. – Writing to Learn, 1988

Quotes on Creativity and Getting Ideas

72. Some of our most creative work gets done in downtime –waking from a nap, taking a walk, daydreaming in the shower…Downtime is when breakthrough ideas are delivered to us, unsummoned, when yesterday’s blockages somehow come unblocked. That’s because we treated ourselves to a little boredom and cleared our brains of the sludge of information. – American Scholar Blog, December 3, 2010

73. Something happened when I actually started to write. The book took on a life of its own and told me how it wanted to be written. – Writing to Learn, 1988

74. An idea can have value in itself, but its usefulness diminishes to the extent that you can’t articulate it to someone else. – Writing to Learn, 1988

Quotes on Writing for Money

75. I know that writers, like everyone else, have to pay the bills. But I believe that blind subservience to an imagined final product is harmful to body and soul and is also often unnecessary. – American Scholar Blog, June 3, 2011

76. Depressingly often I hear from people who are stalled on a piece of writing for reasons that have nothing to do with actual writing. They are snarled in the machinery of trying to market what they write. – American Scholar Blog, June 3, 2011

77. If the process is sound, the product will take care of itself. – Writing to Learn, 1988

78. Ravi’s India memoir also might not get published, but she would be fully alive while writing it. She would grow as a writer and as a person. – American Scholar Blog, June 3, 2011

79. Much of the trouble that writers get into is caused by cart-before-the-horse disease. Writers fixate on the successful final product, forgetting that they will only create that product if they start at the beginning and get the process right. – American Scholar Blog, September 24, 2010

Quotes on Memoirs

80. Memoirs first got a bad name in the mid-1990s. Until that time authors adhered to an agreed-upon code of modesty, drawing a veil over their most shameful acts and feelings. Then talk shows were born and shame went out the window. Overnight, no recollected event was too squalid, no family too dysfunctional, to be trotted out, for the titillation of the masses, on television and in magazines and books. – American Scholar Blog, February 18, 2011

81. Memoir became the new therapy. Everybody and his brother wallowed in their struggle with alcohol, drug addiction, recovery, abuse, illness, aging parents, troubled children, codependency, and other newly fashionable syndromes, meanwhile bashing their parents, siblings, teachers, coaches, and everyone else who ever dared to misunderstand them. It was a new literature of victimhood. – American Scholar Blog, February 18, 2011

82. Nobody remembered those books for more than 10 minutes; readers won’t put up with whining. The memoirs that endure from that period are the ones that look back with love and forgiveness. – American Scholar Blog, February 18, 2011

83. There are many good reasons for writing your memoir that have nothing to do with being published. One is to leave your children and grandchildren a record of who you were and what heritage they were born into. Please get started on that; time tends to surprise us by running out. One of the saddest sentences I know is “I wish I had asked my mother about that.” – American Scholar Blog, February 18, 2011

84. I don’t like people telling other people they shouldn’t write about their life. All of us earn that right by being born; one of the deepest human impulses is to leave a record of what we did and what we thought and felt on our journey. The issue here is not whether so many bad memoirs should be written. It’s whether they should be published. – American Scholar Blog, February 18, 2011

85. Most of those memoirs shouldn’t be published. They are too raw and ragged, too self-absorbed and poorly written, seldom telling us anything we don’t already know. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write them. Don’t worry about the trees. – American Scholar Blog, February 18, 2011

Quotes on Non-fiction Writing

86. Nonfiction writing should always have a point: It should leave the reader with a set of facts, or an idea, or a point of view, that he didn’t have before he started reading. – Writing to Learn, 1988

87. As a nonfiction writer you must anchor your work in specific detail and personal experience that’s useful to your readers. – American Scholar Blog, September 24, 2010

88. Nonfiction writers should always gather far more material than they will use, never knowing which morsel will later exactly serve their needs. – American Scholar Blog, March 11, 2011

Further Reading

If you loved the quotes by William Zinsser, check out the huge collection of writing quotes below. The collection features the best quotes by some of the most famous writers such as Stephen King, Malcolm Gladwell, Jeff Goins, Steven Pressfield and Margaret Atwood among many more.

The quotes are full of valuable advice for any aspiring writer.

If you are struggling to create a business around your writing and need some encouragement, read the quotes below.

  • Sources Cited for William Zinsser’s Quotes

American Scholar Blog (June 4, 2010) Permission Givers

American Scholar Blog, (April 29, 2011) Once Around the Sun

American Scholar Blog (June 3, 2011) Writing for the Wrong Reasons

American Scholar Blog (March 11, 2011) The 300-Word Challenge

American Scholar Blog (November 5, 2010) Tips

American Scholar Blog (May 14, 2010) A Joyful Noise

American Scholar Blog (August 13, 2010) Detour Ahead

American Scholar Blog (September 24, 2010) Out of Order

American Scholar Blog (December 3, 2010) Bring Back Boredom!

American Scholar Blog (February 18, 2011) The Right to Write

NPR (2015) William Zinsser, Author Of ‘On Writing Well, 1976,’ Dies

On Writing Well (1976) On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction [see on Amazon]

Writing to Learn (1988) Writing to Learn [see on Amazon]