Writers on Writing: E.B. White

'A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull'

E.B. White
E.B. White (1899-1985). (New York Times Co./Getty Images)

Meet essayist E.B. White--and consider the advice he has to offer on writing and the writing process.

Introduction to E. B. White

Andy, as he was known to friends and family, spent the last 50 years of his life in an old white farmhouse overlooking the sea in North Brooklin, Maine. That's where he wrote most of his best-known essays, three children's books, and a best-selling style guide.

A generation has grown up since E.B.

White died in that farmhouse in 1985, and yet his sly, self-deprecating voice speaks more forcefully than ever. In recent years, Stuart Little has been turned into a franchise by Sony Pictures, and in 2006 a second film adaptation of Charlotte's Web was released. More significantly, White's novel about "some pig" and a spider who was "a true friend and a good writer" has sold more than 50 million copies over the past half century.

Yet unlike the authors of most children's books, E.B. White is not a writer to be discarded once we slip out of childhood. The best of his casually eloquent essays--which first appeared in Harper's, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s--have been reprinted in Essays of E.B. White (Harper Perennial, 1999). In "Death of a Pig," for instance, we can enjoy the adult version of the tale that was eventually shaped into Charlotte's Web. In "Once More to the Lake," White transformed the hoariest of essay topics--"How I Spent My Summer Vacation"--into a startling meditation on mortality.

 

For readers with ambitions to improve their own writing, White provided The Elements of Style (Penguin, 2005)--a lively revision of the modest guide first composed in 1918 by Cornell University professor William Strunk, Jr. It appears in our short list of essential Reference Works for Writers.

White was awarded the Gold Medal for Essays and Criticism of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, the National Medal for Literature, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In 1973 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

E.B. White's Advice to a Young Writer

What do you do when you're 17 years old, baffled by life, and certain only of your dream to become a professional writer? If you had been "Miss R" 35 years ago, you would have composed a letter to your favorite author, seeking his advice. And 35 years ago, you would have received this reply from E. B. White:

Dear Miss R---:

At seventeen, the future is apt to seem formidable, even depressing. You should see the pages of my journal circa 1916.

You asked me about writing--how I did it. There is no trick to it. If you like to write and want to write, you write, no matter where you are or what else you are doing or whether anyone pays any heed. I must have written half a million words (mostly in my journal) before I had anything published, save for a couple of short items in St. Nicholas. If you want to write about feelings, about the end of summer, about growing, write about it. A great deal of writing is not "plotted"--most of my essays have no plot structure, they are a ramble in the woods, or a ramble in the basement of my mind. You ask, "Who cares?" Everybody cares. You say, "It's been written before." Everything has been written before.

I went to college but not direct from high school; there was an interval of six or eight months. Sometimes it works out well to take a short vacation from the academic world--I have a grandson who took a year off and got a job in Aspen, Colorado. After a year of skiing and working, he is now settled into Colby College as a freshman. But I can't advise you, or won't advise you, on any such decision. If you have a counselor at school, I'd seek the counselor's advice. In college (Cornell), I got on the daily newspaper and ended up as editor of it. It enabled me to do a lot of writing and gave me a good journalistic experience. You are right that a person's real duty in life is to save his dream, but don't worry about it and don't let them scare you. Henry Thoreau, who wrote Walden, said, "I learned this at least by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours." The sentence, after more than a hundred years, is still alive. So, advance confidently. And when you write something, send it (neatly typed) to a magazine or a publishing house. Not all magazines read unsolicited contributions, but some do. The New Yorker is always looking for new talent. Write a short piece for them, send it to The Editor. That's what I did forty-some years ago. Good luck.

Sincerely,

E. B. White
(Letters of E. B. White, Revised Edition, edited by Martha White, HarperCollins, 2006).

Whether you're a young writer like "Miss R" or an older one, White's counsel still holds. Advance confidently, and good luck.

 

E.B. White on a Writer's Responsibility

In an interview for The Paris Review in 1969, White was asked to express his "views about the writer's commitment to politics, international affairs." His response:

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.
(Writers at Work, Eighth Series, Penguin, 1988)

E.B. White on Writing for the Average Reader

In an essay titled "Calculating Machine," White wrote disparagingly about the "Reading-Ease Calculator," a device that presumed to measure the "readability" of an individual's writing style.

There is, of course, no such thing as reading ease of written matter. There is the ease with which matter can be read, but that is a condition of the reader, not of the matter. . . .

There is no average reader, and to reach down toward this mythical character is to deny that each of us is on the way up, is ascending. . . .

It is my belief that no writer can improve his work until he discards the dulcet notion that the reader is feebleminded, for writing is an act of faith, not of grammar. Ascent is at the heart of the matter. A country whose writers are following the calculating machine downstairs is not ascending--if you will pardon the expression--and a writer who questions the capacity of the person at the other end of the line is not a writer at all, merely a schemer. The movies long ago decided that a wider communication could be achieved by a deliberate descent to a lower level, and they walked proudly down until they reached the cellar. Now they are groping for the light switch, hoping to find the way out.
(Poems and Sketches of E.B. White, Harper Colophon, 1983)

E.B. White on Writing with Style

In the final chapter of The Elements of Style (Allyn & Bacon, 1999), White presented 21 "suggestions and cautionary hints" to help writers develop an effective style. He prefaced those hints with this warning:

Young writers often suppose that style is a garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable. Style has no such separate entity; is nondetachable, unfilterable. The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is himself he is approaching, no other; and he should begin by turning resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style--all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.

Writing is, for most, laborious and slow. The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by. A writer is a gunner, sometimes waiting in his blind for something to come in, sometimes roaming the countryside hoping to scare something up. Like other gunners, he must cultivate patience; he may have to work many covers to bring down one partridge.

You'll notice that while advocating a plain and simple style, White conveyed his thoughts through artful metaphors.

 

E.B. White on Grammar

Despite the prescriptive tone of The Elements of Style, White's own applications of grammar and syntax were primarily intuitive, as he once explained in The New Yorker:

Usage seems to us peculiarly a matter of ear. Everyone has his own prejudices, his own set of rules, his own list of horribles. . . .

The English language is always sticking a foot out to trip a man. Every week we get thrown, writing merrily along. . . . English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment, and education--sometimes it's sheer luck, like getting across a street.
(The Second Tree from the Corner, Harper Perennial, 1978)

E.B. White on Not Writing

In a book review titled "Writers at Work," White described his own writing habits--or rather, his habit of putting off writing.

The thought of writing hangs over our mind like an ugly cloud, making us apprehensive and depressed, as before a summer storm, so that we begin the day by subsiding after breakfast, or by going away, often to seedy and inconclusive destinations: the nearest zoo, or a branch post office to buy a few stamped envelopes. Our professional life has been a long shameless exercise in avoidance. Our home is designed for the maximum of interruption, our office is the place where we never are. . . . Yet the record is there. Not even lying down and closing the blinds stops us from writing; not even our family, and our preoccupation with same, stops us.
(The Second Tree from the Corner, Harper Perennial, 1978)

More About White's Essays