E.B. White and Writing Among the Moving Stars

Writing is and always has been my passion, in all forms, whether blogging, poetry, or, my newest endeavor, novel-writing. Like any art, it takes practice and a dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you.

In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the American writer, E.B. White.

988142From Wikipedia: “White was born in Mount Vernon, New York, the youngest child of Samuel Tilly White, the president of a piano firm, and Jessie Hart White, the daughter of Scottish-American painter William Hart.

White served in the army before going to college. He graduated from Cornell University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1921.

White worked for the United Press (currently the United Press International) and the American Legion News Service in 1921 and 1922. Then he became a cub reporter for The Seattle Times in 1922 and 1923. Once, when White was stuck on writing a story, a Times editor said, ‘Just say the words.’ He then worked for two years with the Frank Seaman advertising agency as a production assistant and copywriter before returning to New York City in 1924.

Not long after The New Yorker was founded in 1925, White submitted manuscripts to it. Katharine Angell, the literary editor, recommended to magazine editor and founder Harold Ross that White be taken on as staff. However, it took months to convince him to come to a meeting at the office and further weeks to convince him to agree to work on the premises. Eventually, he agreed to work in the office on Thursdays.

A few years later in 1929, White and Angell were married. They had a son, Joel White, a naval architect and boat builder, who owned Brooklyn Boat Yard in Brooklin, Maine. Katharine’s son from her first marriage, Roger Angell, has spent decades as a fiction editor for The New Yorker and is well-known as the magazine’s baseball writer.

In 1959, White edited and updated The Elements of Style. This handbook of grammatical and stylistic guidance for writers of American English had been written and published in 1918 by William Strunk, Jr., one of White’s professors at Cornell. White’s rework of the book was extremely well received, and further editions of the work followed in 1972, 1979, and 1999.  The volume is a standard tool for students and writers and remains required reading in many composition classes.

His first children’s book, Stuart Little, was published in 1945, and Charlotte’s Web appeared in 1952. His third children’s novel, The Trumpet of the Swan, was published in 1970

White died on October 1, 1985, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, at his farm in North Brooklin, Maine. He is buried in the Brooklin Cemetery beside his wife Katharine, who died in 1977.”

“Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.”

― E.B. White, The Elements of Style

It’s been about a week since I first started reading The Elements of Style, the famous “little book” originally written by William Strunk Jr. and brilliantly edited and expanded decades later by his student E.B. White. The Elements of Style, I have heard, is the place to starting you are serious about writing.

This isn’t a book about outlining, or plot, or character development, or world building, it’s about the words, just the words. Which ones to use, how to put them in order, what words not to us and why. This book is about the basics, it’s about what comes before your ideas and your

I do not agree with every rule, but the book gets me thinking about what my rules are and about what is the best way to say what it is I am trying to say. I’ll write a proper review of the book when I finish it. For now, I just want to say that, interestingly, instead of inspiring me to buckle down and work on my wordiness, or my tendency to write in the passive voice this book is just showing me see what rules I don’t want to follow.

Am I defiant for defiant’s sake? Am I only being lazy? Am I allowing my ego to get in the way of improvement? Strunk would think so and no doubt he would beat me over the head with the rules until I complied, but White might have understood.

I can’t get past my own certainty that not only is there no singular “best way to write” but that no single person can tell another person how to write. Especially not from the distant past.

Writing is about expressing what is inside ourselves, and some of us are not trying to express something so forceful or sure. Sometimes your writing requires being unsure, passive, and maybe a little timid. Sometimes you need more words because wordiness says something in itself.

I am weary of any rules or ways of doing things that have existed longer than I have. I just can’t believe that anything that was useful or right at one time can be right and useful for all time. Words pop in and out of existence every day and each word’s meaning morphs from one mind to another. The ways we communicate change with every new messaging app, blogging platform, and emoji pack release. Why shouldn’t the rules for communicating effectively change too?

Maybe beyond making your sentences comprehensible there is no blueprint for how to write well and no way to predict what might work and what might not.

Maybe, like in any art or creative expression, it is good to know what other people think is good and right, and how they do things. How else will you know what is possible? But maybe it’s okay if I casually disregard those rules and guidelines even if the only reason I have to do so is that I simply don’t like them or see the point. It’s my writing; I’ll do it however I want to dammit!

I don’t want to sound like a child who refuses to listen to reason, I am considering Strunk and White’s advice very seriously, and I am learning, I just don’t care for the tone throughout the book that any writer who chooses to do things differently is bad or lazy. I get a little perturbed that writing seems to be the only creative endeavor where straying from the established rules and Way of Doing Things is condemned rather than studied or celebrated.

Instead of trying so hard to write the way other people say we should, we should be writing the way we want to and bending all our energy to getting better at that.

I mean, if we truly are out there navigating among the moving stars, one person’s path won’t work for everyone. Don’t think yourself a failure because you know that and choose to go your own way. Get to where you are going any way you can, and make sure to enjoy the ride.

P.S. This post is riddled with errors that both Strunk and White would cringe at. Despite my assertions, I am ashamed. 


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Featured image via Unsplash


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