In a piece about Ellis Island, William Zinsser famously took up the 300 word challenge to prove that a write need not be verbose to convey his message.

In a piece about Ellis Island William Zinsser famously took up the 300 word challenge to prove that a writer need not be verbose to convey his message.

The world became a smaller place this month with the passing of William Zinsser. A memorial service was held in his honor yesterday here in the city. I wrote about Zinsser way back in 2011 when he was still writing his weekly column for The American Scholar. Then in his late eighties, he was crafting 700 word pieces of grace and elegance on any topic he chose every Friday. A year after I wrote the vignette, Zinsser–then in his 90th year–won a National Magazine Award for digital commentary; he had mastered the internet just as he had mastered writing for newspapers and magazines in the heyday of periodical publishing in the middle of the twentieth century. The reason he stayed relevant is that he never strayed from his core belief: simplify your writing and thereby find your humanity.

I could go on, but won’t. Here is the homage I wrote in March 2011:

For several years in the mid-2000s I collaborated with two teachers and a librarian on a writing and research module at a local high school. The four of us taught the basics of scholarship to a group of Advanced Placement English and History juniors. The final assignment was a five-six page paper. I continually stressed the importance of writing clearly and concisely. We kicked things off each term with a reading and discussion of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” One school year, when the budget permitted, we distributed copies of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style to each student that were theirs to keep. Most students eventually “got it,” but I was always struck by how tenaciously some clung to the belief that pretentious, ornate prose was the way to the teacher’s heart and a good grade. In his most recent “Zinsser on Friday” posting, the incomparable William Zinsser recounts a challenge once posed to him by an editor: submit a travel piece not to exceed 300 words. Not wanting to stray too far from home, he selected a certain island “a mere subway and ferry ride away.”  Read the results.

(Note that the link immediately above is now dead. Because The American Scholar may link to it again, I am going to leave it there. Here is the Ellis Island piece.)

(image/Library of Congress; permalink: