By 8 p.m. Wednesday night, not a single seat was empty in the Branford Common Room as students and faculty crowded around distinguished journalists and alumni writers Christopher Buckley ’75, Jane Mayer ’77, Mark Singer ’72 and John Tierney ’75. The panelists had gathered to commemorate the life and teachings of William Zinsser, Yale writing professor and former master of Branford College, perhaps best known for his book “On Writing Well.” Zinsser passed away in May.
The panelists took turns reading excerpts of Zinsser’s work and speaking about what they had learned as his students in the 1970s. Among the memories mentioned were Zinsser’s rigorous insistence on simple writing, his sense of humor and his personal warmth as a mentor to his students.
“Bill was focused on cutting words, being simple,” Tierney said of Zinsser. “He compared writing to building a house. He said, ‘Before you can do that, you’ve got to learn to saw the wood straight, you’ve got to be able to hammer a nail in.’”
Tierney recalled his happiest moment at Yale — after talking with Zinsser one evening, Zinsser encouraged him to apply to his writing seminar freshman year.
The panelists also spoke of Zinsser’s impressive sense of humor. Buckley recalled how Zinsser referred to humor as the “secret weapon of the non-fiction writer,” meaning that Zinsser approached humor as a way of articulating truths that otherwise would not be said.
Zinsser’s emphasis on the importance of humor resonated with the audience as well.
“When I find myself laughing when I’m reading, I just feel so intimate, so engaged with the writer,” Qianyi Qin ’17 said. “The writer just comes alive.”
Mayer, who took a humor course with Zinsser, said Zinsser also taught her the art of investigative writing. Mayer said that what she had learned from Zinsser was, simply, not enough. Zinsser’s class was a “free-fire zone” in which students could express confidence in their voices, she said. Mayer said Zinsser emphasized an appreciation for language and storytelling that she has since tried to incorporate in her own writing.
Mayer also recounted that Zinsser had brought legendary writers, like S.J. Perlman, for students to meet.
Singer also spoke about Zinsser’s love of language, recounting his distaste for “clutter” and “bogus words” in writing. Singer said that Zinsser thought of writing not as a product, but as a journey through life.
“[The talk] certainly taught me a lot about William Zinsser,” Daniel Judt ’17 said. “I think it was just fun to hear the stories.”
Zinsser’s work teaching the art of writing ultimately evolved into the English 120 seminar.