I love writing. This summer I read the best book on how to write, the advice of E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web and other classics. Oh, I have read a host of posts and articles on writing, many from fellow bloggers. They are all filled with terrific advice, but none compare to the simple, direct advice of E.B. White.
It all started with reading the new book, Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet. I wanted to learn more about White. After all, Charlotte’s Web is my first chapter reading book of the year in my classroom.
The book is far more than E.B. White’s story. I am going to call him Andy in this blog post, as that was the nickname given to him by his Cornell University classmates. His English professor at Cornell was William Strunk, who taught English from the book he wrote, The Elements of Style. Andy greatly respected his professor, and as what often happens with good books, this book came into play much later in Andy’s life.
Children’s books were not even on the radar for Andy. While he spent summers in Maine with a great love for the outdoors, his writing was not for children. Well, not yet. Andy’s first job after graduation was with the Seattle Times. His writing was excellent, yet wordy. Finally his boss said:
“Just say the words.” That stuck with Andy the rest of his life.
I have thought of those four words ever since I read the book. Yes, just say it!
Most of Andy’s career was spent writing for The New Yorker magazine. He became good friends with fellow writer James Thurber. Their desks were side by side. Finally a Cornell classmate asked him to help publish a revised edition of Professor Strunk’s book, Elements of Style. And, this is a large part of what he had to say:
“Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences… This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
Yes! Make every word tell. You are right Professor Strunk and Andy. More words do not make better writing. This is why the wit and wisdom in Andy’s writing was so successful at The New Yorker magazine. He followed this advice, and his success as well as his writing continued to grow.
Then, someone suggested he write a children’s book…
The year was 1945. A published children’s book was always read by the librarian at the New York Public Library. This was a big deal. I suspect that her (or his) opinion was gigantic. When Andy wrote his first children’s book, Stuart Little, Anne Carrol Moore of the New York Public Library wrote this:
“I was never so disappointed in a book in my life. Stuart Little, with it’s monstrous birth should not be published.” She said the story was unfit for children and out of hand, that the two worlds of fantasy and reality are all mixed up. “I fear Stuart Little will be very difficult to place in libraries and schools all over the country.”
Woah! And you thought rejection was tough?
Andy struggled with the first line of Charlotte’s Web. He put the book aside for a year. He tried, “Charlotte was a grey spider who lived in the doorway of a barn.” Then he tried, “I shall speak first of Wilbur.” Then he tried a long opening sentence. After a year he tried, “At midnight, John Arable pulled his boots on, lit a lantern, and walked out to the hog house.” Last, White cut to the action, and finally shortened it to, “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”
I just finished reading Charlotte’s Web to my preschool class for the umpteenth time over decades. Yes, that opening sentence works. Boy, does it work.
In the words of “Andy”, E.B. White:
“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words and they backhand them over the net.”
I couldn’t agree more! And here’s a photo of Andy swinging on the real rope swing, in the real barn in Charlotte’s Web.