More White Writing (And Editing Tips)

Quality EditingLet’s return to Letters of E. B. White (HarperCollins 2006) to find out how to become better writers.  White should know, and he shows us, without really trying, in many of these letters.  It’s all in the concrete details.

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But a little stage-setting first.  One of White’s correspondents once asked him about his stance on religion, and his epistolary response went like this.  He said that, yes, there was in him some religious sentiment, but it was like the world before the Lord got hold of it:  without form and void.  Like many folks who have vague, inchoate religious stirrings and feelings, White was attuned to the natural world (especially the barnyard), was a keen observer of nature, and loved life because of it.  (He often invokes Thoreau.)

In his short story “The Second Tree from the Corner” (which is slightly autobiographical), the main character thinks he detects some incipient neuroses, so he goes to see a psychiatrist, who doesn’t do him much good.  But on leaving the psychiatrist’s office, the character happens to glance up and see the glory and beauty of a tree gilded by the setting sun.  Then . . . things are pretty much all right with him.  He carries on with a slight spring in his step.  In a letter dated January 1945, White writes:

Don’t worry about my health – I am a lot better and plenty good enough for my purposes.  I had two things the matter with me – mice in the subconscious and spurs in the cervical spine.  Of the two the spine trouble was less bothersome.  It took me eighteen months to find out how you get rid of mice and if you ever need to know I’ll be glad to give you the instructions.  The whole key to the neurotic life is simple; in fact the simplicity of it is the greatest hurdle, because it tends to make it impossible or unacceptable to highly complex natures, who insist on meeting their trouble with suitably devious devices and cures.  Anyway, here I am, in the clear again and damned thankful to be here.

White is often described as taking the stance of the detached, ironic observer.  I bet I can guess how he got rid of the “mice in the subconscious.”

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So, then, carefully observing and appreciating the world around you – especially its beauties and its ineluctable ironies – is the key to at least a tenuous grasp on sanity and to good writing.  Reproducing, with palpably sensuous imagery, the details of the observed natural world is what makes for good writing, of any kind, and that’s what White did well.

Here’s an example from a letter dated 14 June 1951:

I feel like a louse, or tick, for not having written sooner in answer to your nice letters, but have been having my spring orgy in the barn, settling arguments among the geese, taking temperatures, replacing young robins fallen from nests, stepping on the edges of hoes and rakes, challenging black flies to fifteen rounds without even attempting to make the weight, and constructing jury-rig incubators . . . In March the gander decided that an ordinary 10-quart galvanized pail would do for a mating pond (his exact words were, “I’m ready if you girls are”) and when I got back here in May the three geese were all sitting on eggs in three nests that I had lined up in the barn.  When the first egg hatched and the goose saw the result of her labors, she jumped off, grabbed the gosling by the neck, and threw it high and wide.

And another one from 4 April 1954:

Blowing a living gale here from the NW, and the temperature this morning early was 10°.  All  water pails frozen solid, pasture pond solid, all doors resisting all attempts at ingress and egress, frost-proof valve on outside water line frozen,  master of house all alone and frozen, barnyard sunny and full of little black-faced lambs and their mammas.  I have spent most of my time, since getting here, keeping the kitchen stove hooked up to fever pitch.  Coldest 4th of April since 1879.  Am living on a straight diet of rye whiskey and Franco-American spaghetti.  The first night I was here, though, I boiled a potato and it was quite an experience.

See how it works?  You can see everything he says because White is a keen observer and doesn’t deal in generalities and vague abstractions.  I’d also recommend that you take a look at his ruminative essay “Once More to the Lake.” As in the extracts above, he piles concrete detail upon concrete detail, so that you feel as though you are right there with him and “the boy” in the boat.  You smell the odor of fish, you feel the detritus of fishing trips under your feet, and you see the dragonfly on the tip of your rod.  It works.

We’ve all heard the old dictum “Show, don’t tell,” but that’s not really much help.  Much better is when a good writer (and a good editor) shows us how to show.

White Writing

I  finished reading some time backprinted-letter-e-1530214, 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 of and keen 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.

Let’s talk about editing . . .


Go Ahead. Do It. Split It!

We all remember that adamant injunction from our school days: “Never split an infinitive.” I’ve read that this rule comes from the prescriptive pedants who were brought up on Latin. In Latin, of course, you can’t split an infinitive . . . because it’s one word. But we’re not ancient Romans. The best writers always throw out the rules when it serves their purposes.

Lately I have been reading Letters of E. B. White (which I highly recommend). And White, who everyone agrees was a great prose writer, reminds us over and over that our ear – not dusty grammar rules – should be our guide in writing. Orwell also told us, in “Politics and the English Language,” that we should break the rules of grammar and usage rather than say anything outright barbarous. So if it sounds better to split an infinitive, just go ahead and split away.

Here’s an example. Suppose you went to a party and indulged in way too many adult beverages. The next morning your wife asks you, “Do you remember what YOU did last night?” Casting back in your mind, you find a glaring blank. All you have are a gigantic headache and inexplicable bumps and bruises.

So you repent of your mysterious misdeeds and make a promise to your wife. You tell her, emphatically, “I vow never to do that again!”

Nah, there’s no punch in that.

What you would say is this: “I vow, so help me, to never, ever do that again!” Much better. (She might actually believe that.)

So, in the matter of splitting infinitives, let your ear guide you. Read it out loud, and if it sounds better to split your infinitive, then split it.

Let’s talk . . . 

In Memoriam – For My Old Friend the Colon Who Has Passed and Been Supplanted by a Redundant Imposter

Two elegant little dots, one poised precariously over the other, suspended and balanced In Memoriam: The Colonand slightly portentous, together pleasingly symmetrical, ready to birth the following illustration or expansion: that’s my old friend the colon. But she’s gone now.

And now – now – in her place is that horizontally harsh dash – who has no elegance or balance or beauty. He’s just a harsh, informal line trying to do the job of my old literary friend. So . . . rest in peace, my friend.

Even worse my elegant and useful companion is suffering usurpation by a colon pretender: one who looks like my friend, but can’t do the job properly. For example:

There are a great many things wrong with modern writing and punctuation, such as: sentences that are too short and choppy, sloppy diction, and an unwarranted familiarity.

No, no, and again no. It should read this way:

There are a great many things wrong with modern writing and punctuation: sentences that are too short and choppy, sloppy diction, and an unwarranted familiarity.

Why? Because my friend the colon will do the job of the such as: there is no need for both. If you want to use such as, then leave my elegant friend alone. Do not try to pretend that she is this redundant pretender. Get thee behind me, imposter.

I’ll bet Mr. Blake, who could find a world in a grain of sand, could find a great deal in my friend’s two dots. But, alas, we’ll never know now.

Let’s Talk . . .