What William Zinsser Believed In

William Zinsser’s father wanted him to go into the family shellac business.

He had it all planned out for his son: The office on 59th Street and Eleventh Avenue in Manhattan. The stable of customers. A hundred-year-long tradition of first-rate shellac made from a formula his grandfather brought over from Germany in 1849.

It was lucrative. It was secure. And it was not what William Zinsser wanted for his life.

What Mr. Zinsser wanted was to be in the writing business. As a kid, he’d loved the humor and humanity of The New York Herald Tribune. And he taught himself to type so he could be a newspaperman. Which was not lucrative. Or secure.

But he didn’t believe in security as a goal. Or being a prisoner of plans. He believed that “what we want to do we will do well.” And that we should always be ready to be surprised by grace. Which is rarely planned.

So, Mr. Zinsser, a small man who favored wide-brimmed hats, stepped out of his father’s plans. And into the offices of The New York Herald Tribune.

Where he was hired. And did well.

Mr. Zinsser continued to do well doing what he wanted to do. He taught at Yale with only a B.A. (which can happen if you throw your wide-brimmed hat in the ring). He wrote, On Writing Well, which sold over a million copies. He was executive editor of the Book-of-the-Month-Club, which had over a million members.

And so Mr. Zinsser lived out his life. Which had none of the planned shellac. But plenty of unplanned grace.

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