EB White on writing

EB White
EB White

Today is the birthday of EB White (July 11, 1899 – October 1, 1985), reminds the Writer’s Almanac. Earlier this month, I posted an entry quoting the writer William Zinsser’s homage to White in his book, On Writing Well. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and EB White remains a classic English language style guide. I was looking at my paperback copy – the third edition of the book – which has only 92 pages. A little book but so big in authority and influence.

The fifth and last chapter is called An Approach to Style. It is a list of 21 points which includes tips such as these:

  • Write in a way that comes naturally
  • Write with nouns and verbs
  • Revise and rewrite
  • Do not overwrite
  • Avoid the use of qualifiers (such as “rather”, “very”, “little”)
  • Do not affect a breezy manner
  • Do not explain too much
  • Do not construct awkward adverbs (such as “tiredly”, “tangledly”)
  • Make sure the reader knows who is speaking
  • Do not use dialect unless your ear is good
  • Be clear
  • Use figures of speech sparingly
  • Avoid foreign languages

I just came across an interview White gave to George Plimpton and Frank Crowther which was published in the Paris Review in 1969. He said:

A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.

In reply to another question, he said:

When I start to write, my mind is apt to race, like a clock from which the pendulum has been removed. I simply can’t keep up, with pen or typewriter, and this causes me to break apart. I think there are writers whose thoughts flow in a smooth and orderly fashion, and they can transcribe them on paper without undue emotion or without getting too far behind. I envy them. When you consider that there are a thousand ways to express even the simplest idea, it is no wonder writers are under a great strain. Writers care greatly how a thing is said—it makes all the difference. So they are constantly faced with too many choices and must make too many decisions.

That is the beauty of language and a challenge for the writer. Any idea, person, object or incident can be described in so many ways – the writer needs judgment and skill to do it clearly, succinctly or memorably.

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