Writing: From EB White to computer era

I have been reading the book, On Writing Well, by William Zinsser – the 30th anniversary edition, published in 2006.

Zinsser begins his introduction with a description of a portrait of the New Yorker contributor EB White that captures the essence of the writer’s craft.

EB White
EB White

Writing tools

Zinsser admits On Writing Well was inspired by Strunk and White’s classic manual, The Elements of Style. Zinsser writes:

One of the pictures hanging in my office in mid-Manhattan is a photograph of the writer EB White. It was taken by Jill Krementz when White was 77 years old, at his home in North Brooklin, Maine. A white-haired man is sitting on a plain wooden bench at a plain wooden table – three boards nailed to four legs – in a small boathouse. The window is open to a view across the water. White is typing on a manual typewriter, and the only other objects are an ashtray and a nail keg. The keg, I don’t have to be told, is his wastebasket…

White has everything he needs: a writing implement, a piece of paper, and a receptacle for all the sentences that didn’t come out the way he wanted them to.

Since then writing has gone electronic. Computers have replaced the typewriter, the delete key has replaced the wastebasket, and various other keys insert, move and rearrange whole chunks of text. But nothing has replaced the writer. He or she is still stuck with the same job of saying something that other people still want to read…

I first wrote On Writing Well in an outbuilding in Connecticut that was as small and crude as White’s boathouse. My tools were a dangling lightbulb, an Underwood standard typewriter, a ream of yellow copy paper and a wire wastebasket…

EB White, as it happened, was very much on my mind. I had long considered him my model as a writer. His was the seemingly effortless style – achieved, I knew, with great effort – that I wanted to emulate…

[But] Instead of competing with the Strunk and White book [The Elements of Style] I decided to complement it…

So On Writing Well was born in 1976, and it’s now in its third generation of readers, its sales well over a million…

As America has steadily changed in 30 years, so has the book. I’ve revised it six times…

When I first wrote On Writing Well, the readers I had in mind were a small segment of the population: students, writers, editors, teachers and people who wanted to learn how to write. I had no inkling of the electronic marvels that would soon revolutionize the act of writing. First came the word processor, in the 1980s, which made the computer an everyday tool for people who had never thought of themselves as writers. Then came the internet and the email, in the 1990s, which continued the revolution. Today everybody in the world is writing to everybody else, making instant constant across every border and across every time zone. Bloggers are saturating the globe.


On one level the new torrent is good news. Any invention that reduces the fear of writing is up there with air-conditioning and the lightbulb. But, as always, there’s a catch. Nobody told all the new computer writers that the essence of writing is rewriting. Just because they’re writing fluently doesn’t mean they’re writing well.

The condition was first revealed with the arrival of the word processor. Two opposite things happened: good writers got better and bad writers got worse. Good writers welcomed the gift of being able to fuss endlessly with their sentences – pruning and revising and reshaping – without the drudgery of retyping. Bad writers became even more verbose because writing was suddenly so easy and their sentences looked so pretty on the screen. How could such beautiful sentences not be perfect?…

On Writing Well is a craft book, and its principles haven’t changed in 30 years. I don’t know what still newer marvels will make writing twice as easy in the next 30 years. But I do know they won’t make writing twice as good. That will still requie plain old hard thinking – what EB White was doing in his boathouse – and the plain old tools of the English language.

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