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.

Unleashing the subconscious and overcoming the writer’s block

I have been reading Can I Change Your Mind? The Craft and Art of Persuasive Writing by Lindsay Camp, a copywriter. He writes about the need for “unleashing the subconscious”. He writes:

“I want to expand a bit on the role played by the non-rational mind in making writing come alive. Continue reading “Unleashing the subconscious and overcoming the writer’s block”

Rewriting: A 20th century phenomenon

The essence of writing is rewriting, says William Zinsser in his book, On Writing Well.

With the arrival of the word processor, he says: “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.”

He is right. Revising one’s writing is a 20th century phenomenon, says Craig Ferhman in a Boston Globe article. Continue reading “Rewriting: A 20th century phenomenon”

The seven ages of language

Stephen King
Stephen King

Don’t make any conscious effort to improve your vocabulary, says Stephen King in his book, Stephen King: On Writing. Your vocabulary will grow as you read, he adds. And then he says:

One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because maybe you’re a little ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed. Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you’ll never use “emolument” when you mean “tip”…

Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colourful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word – of course you will, there’s always another word – but it probably won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean.

Write simply, let the words flow, don’t be stiff and laboured. That’s what King is saying. And he is right. You don’t want to pause and look up a word or read a sentence twice to get its meaning. Continue reading “The seven ages of language”