I just finished reading last night, after several weeks because a collection of letters lends itself to being consumed in many small bites, Letters of E. B. White, Revised Edition (HarperCollins, 2006). And I’m going to be a better writer for it, which would, I believe, have pleased White, who labored over his writing to make it so easy to read. This is a book I would unreservedly recommend to anyone who is a fan of White’s writing and, like me, cut his writing teeth on The Elements of Style or who just wants a peek into this fairly uneventful but utterly interesting life
The main thing I learned from White long ago – and this book doubly reinforced for me – is that a writer’s ultimate guide should be his ear. Grammar rules and the conventions of writing are good as far as they go. But your ear, which will guide you into writing what is easily readable, trumps these. Here’s an example from a 1945 letter to William Shawn:
In the comment on Life’s storage wall, I wrote: “. . . a pretty good case can be made out for setting fire to it and starting fresh.” Some studious person, alone with his God in the deep of night, came upon the word “fresh” and saw how easily it could be changed to the word “afresh,” a simple matter of affixing an “a.” So the phrase became “starting afresh” and acquired refinement, and a sort of grammatical excellence.
I still think people say “start fresh.” I shall continue to write “start fresh,” to say “start fresh,” and, in circumstances which require a restart, I shall actually start fresh. I don’t ever intend to start afresh. Anybody who prefers to start afresh is at liberty to do so, but I don’t recommend it.
An afresh starter is likely to be a person who wants to get agoing. He doesn’t just want to get going, he wants to get agoing. An afresh starter is also likely to be a person who feels acold when he steps out of the tub.
Some of my best friends lie abed and run amuck, but they do not start afresh. Never do. However, if there is to be a growing tendency in the New Yorker office to improve words by affixing an “a,” I shall try to adjust myself to this amusing situation. Characters in my stories will henceforth go afishing, and they will read Afield & Astream. They will not be typical people, they will all be atypical. Some of them, perhaps all of them, will be asexual, even amoral.
Good stuff, eh? (But you’ll notice that White here violates a couple of the rules he later lays out in The Elements of Style.)
Another thing I learned from White (and also from Lewis and Orwell) is to avoid pretentious diction with no exact meaning. This one’s harder to practice all the time, though, because we all, from time to time, let our language seduce us, and we all, all the time, want to show off and sound learned and important. Here’s a memorable and fun illustration from a 1982 letter to Sam Neel:
I think my first encounter with the word “parameter” was in a pronouncement by our late Governor Longley. Since then there have been many encounters, for it is a much-loved word by those who like words that sound impressive without meaning anything. I was surprised at Russell, though. He’s old enough to know better.
I’m enclosing a recent letter from Jacques Cousteau, an underwater stylist. Jacques has been “quantifying the horizontal and vertical distribution of nutrients and sediment in the Amazon,” and, as you see, he finally wound up with a mouthful of parameters. They probably slipped through his face mask.
We’re not having much of a winter here—a lot of fog, ooze, rain, drizzle, snow changing to rain, rain changing to snow. There is about a forty degree swing between the top and the bottom of our thermometer readings—a truly mercurial climate, fit only for coyotes and parameter-watchers. It’s quite pretty here today though.
There ya go: White showing us why we shouldn’t use goofy pretentious words like “parameter.” I’ll remember this one for a while.
In the last paragraph we encounter a signature characteristic of White that made him a top-notch writer. He was a lover and keen of observer of the natural world. And he always wrote about it using concrete details and see-able imagery – especially when he got going on the subject of his beloved turkeys and bantams.
But that’s for another time.