Hear Ye, Hear Ye! E.B. White on How To Write

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. 

Jennie

About Jennie

I have been teaching preschool for over thirty years. This is my passion. I believe that children have a voice, and that is the catalyst to enhance or even change the learning experience. Emergent curriculum opens young minds. It's the little things that happen in the classroom that are most important and exciting. That's what I write about. I am highlighted in the the new edition of Jim Trelease's bestselling book, "The Read-Aloud Handbook" because of my reading to children. My class has designed quilts that hang as permanent displays at both the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, and the Fisher House at the Boston VA Hospital.
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101 Responses to Hear Ye, Hear Ye! E.B. White on How To Write

  1. dolcevita35 says:

    I loved.. Just let the inside out flow. Thank you 🌹

  2. beetleypete says:

    “Just say the words” indeed. Sound advice from a master storyteller.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  3. I LOVED reading this!!!! I will have to try and find this book! I have many friends who write flowery poetic prose while I’m a “give em the facts” kind of writer. My writing instructor at the senior center told me to keep my blog post around 500 words as most people won’t stay with anything longer. Once I included photos, that helped break things up a bit. I always thought it was odd that I was a writer who used few words and like my books the same way. Now I feel so much better. And you are so correct about writing up for children. I remember looking at my dad at 8 years of age and thinking to myself, “do you really think I’m that dumb?” I have no college education but I have Strunks manual for writing.:) Thanks so much for sharing this.

    • Jennie says:

      Marlene! This is such a wonderful story. I think you are a terrific writer, and I can picture you amongst friends who write flowery poetry, and not feeling connected at all to that kind of writing. I think your writing instructor at the senior center is right on 500 words. Funny thing, I never really paid attention to my word count on blog posts, but they seem to end up around 500 words. I’m so glad that E.B. White’s words resonated with you, as they did with me. Big wow! And writing up for children falls into the same category as reading up to children. That’s why I can read Charlotte’s Web to preschoolers! Marlene, you really have Strunk’s book? That is impressive. You are tops in my book! Best to you, my friend.

      • Thank you so much, Jennie. Yes, I do have Strunk’s book. My writing teacher at that same senior center said it was important. I have many books on writing and work hard to absorb them. I love my flowery friends. I’m more the herb garden variety. 😉

      • Jennie says:

        You are the best, Marlene. Now, I must get Strunk’s Book. I know you love your flowery friends, and your self description is THE best! Herb garden variety. We’re cut from the same cloth. 🙂

  4. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    Wonderful post by Jennie Fitzkee on writing children’s books, using Charlotte’s Web as an example. Head over and add your views.

  5. Jennie, when I read Some Writer! last winter, I was also inspired. The story is fascinating and Melissa Sweet’s illustrations are amazing. It prompted me to immediately purchase Elements of Style from which I’ve learned so many techniques that I use in my writing everyday. It’s so much fun to learn that you feel very much the same, Jennie! – Susan

  6. Darlene says:

    I love the EB White quote. I try very hard not to write down to kids.

  7. paulandruss says:

    Excellent post. I read Charlotte’s Web as a kid and loved it. Andy’s writing advice is spot on. When writing a first draft I can get overwhelmed trying to write the emotions and nuances. In the end I find I have instinctively followed ‘just write the words’. I wish I had heard that quote when just starting out it would have saved me one hell of a learning curve!

    • Jennie says:

      Thank you! Like you, I found his advice both brilliant and simple. After the first draft, just write the words. The number of drafts alone on the opening sentence of Charlotte’s Web is mind boggling. Quite inspiring for writers.

  8. Nemorino says:

    I remember reading Stuart Little to my children when they were small.

  9. Mary Adler says:

    I loved Some Writer and E.B. White. I would reblog your post but for some reason reblogs don’t show up on my website, so I am sharing it on Facebook. Thank you for a lovely post and a nice reminder of a wonderful writer.

  10. Ritu says:

    This is so great! JUST WRITE THE WORDS!!!!

  11. undone88 says:

    Just devoured this and ordered the book! How cool that his English teacher wrote the “Elements of Style.”

  12. dgkaye says:

    Jennie, this was a fabulous recanting of E.B. White and his writing, Element of Style is one of the classic writing bibles. An amazing talent to be able to write about writing and be able to relate to children with Charlotte’s Webb. 🙂

  13. Love this post, Jennie! Charlotte’s Web was my all-time favorite book as a child. Thank you for sharing E.B. White’s experiences and advice.
    Happy weekend! 🙂

  14. Tina Frisco says:

    What a terrific post, Jennie! I devoured it. E.B. White is an outstanding writer and one to be emulated. I found my children’s book to be the most difficult of the three I’ve written thus far. Kids are a very discerning audience and will tell you up front what they think. I especially appreciate: “This requires not that the writer make all sentences short . . . but that every word tell.” Brilliant! ♥

    • Jennie says:

      Thank you, Tina. I’m so glad this resonated with you. Devoured is a perfect word, here. Strunk’s words struck me, too. You can imagine what it was like to read aloud Charlotte’s Web this year to the children at school, after reading this story of E.B. White… it was the dessert after the dinner.

  15. frenchc1955 says:

    Reblogged this on charles french words reading and writing and commented:
    This is an excellent piece on writing!

  16. Superb advice on writing here, Jennie. Charlotte’s Web is one of my favourites [I have quite a long list] and it still makes me cry.

  17. cindy knoke says:

    “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.”
    This is so amazingly true, which is why I barely write.

  18. Reblogged this on K. D. Dowdall and commented:
    Jennie, what a great book for writers! E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, tells his secret for great writing! Thank you so much for sharing! Great post as always! Karen 🙂

  19. ren says:

    Less is Best! Wonderful posting and thank you again!

  20. ren says:

    Reblogged this on Branching Out and commented:
    Here is a wonderful sharing from one of my most favorite teachers on this planet…. Thank you, Jennie!

  21. What a beautiful post, Jennie. I just loved the last quote. How insightful and wonderful. And the image on the rope swing is the perfect ending. Thanks so much for sharing Andy’s inspiring words and journey. 🙂

  22. E.B.White is a winner all right. I loved his books.

  23. I love his books! I plan to read 3 of his books to almost 5 year old #1 Grandson since I began reading him chapter books this year. We’re finishing up Willie Wonka and Charlie Factory now. What an eye opener it’s been for him to see how books are often times different from the movie. He’s quick to point out the differences.:) Next is to let him view both versions of movies and let him compare those too.

    I want to read him The Trumpeter Swan first largely because this is the book that my daughter remembers me reading to her the most, and she says it’s her favorite of the 3 books I have of E.B. Whites. Maybe her son will feel the same? I am curious to find out. 🙂

    He’s finally beginning to show an interest in writing, so I’ll have to encourage him to “just say the words” when he’s writing.

    • Jennie says:

      This is such a wonderful story of reading to your grandson. You are beginning a new adventure of reading. So exciting! I love the books you have read! Can I suggest a few books? You might want to hold off a year on The Trumpeter of the Swan. Wonderful as it is, boys at this age are 6+ months behind girls. So, you might want to wait a bit so he will be as entranced with the book as your daughter was. One of the best is a rather new book, The Wild Robot, by Peter Brown. I read it to spellbound first graders at the library last year. My Father’s Dragon, The Story of Doctor Dolittle, and Mr. Popper’s Penguins are fantastic. And yes, encourage him to “say the words” when he’s writing 🙂. Is he good at pumping a swing? Typically the ability and interest in writing goes hand-in-hand with becoming proficient at pumping a swing. It’s all muscle development. Let me know how the reading and writing goes! 🙂

      • I’m almost done reading him Mr. Popper’s Penguins, and My Father’s Dragon 3 tales. We’ve put them aside for a couple of weeks b/c we’re reading Willy Wonka, and quite a few Thanksgiving, and Pilgrim/first settler’s to America books right now. He’s so into these books that he’s lost interest in the other two chapter books. I have no doubt that a quick recap will have us both back into the stories though.

        He’s just getting the feel for pumping his legs with swinging! I didn’t know writing and leg pumping to get the swing going went together! You learn something everyday!

        BTW; you brought the other two books to my attention. They’re wonderful! I’ll look up Wild Robot. I don’t think I have the Story of Dr. Doolittle, but I have something packed away regarding Dr. Doolittle.

        Thank you so much for sharing all the wonderful preschooler ideas, and things that go on in your classroom! We’re enjoying many of your suggestions. 🙂 xx

      • Jennie says:

        Wonderful! You are on a roll with many excellent books. I so enjoy hearing what you’re reading together. If your grandson is just getting the feel of pumping his legs, he’ll probably be comfortably writing in the spring when he’s back outside and swinging. That’s age appropriate for boys. I put up a chin-up bar in the doorway at school in the winter. Boys love it, and it helps develop the upper body muscles, much like swinging does. Apologies for going on and on! Have a Happy Sunday, Deborah. 🙂

      • I love your comment. Don’t apologize!

        That’s funny about the chin up bar we put one up for both our kids. He-Man was always running into it when he’d go into the kids rooms to play or read with them.
        It’s been removed, but we still have the bar.

      • Jennie says:

        Funny story! Might be good in a hall closet doorway. I have to be careful at school, too. 🙂

  24. Writers wisdom for sure. ‘O)

  25. Andy’s struggle with just the perfect first line is awesome! (even though I’m sure he didn’t think so at the time – HA!)
    Thanks for this insightful post…lots of take-away for me in it.
    Have a great Sunday, Jennie.

    • Jennie says:

      Exactly what I thought, too. You can imagine what it was like for me to read Charlotte’s Web aloud after having read this book. Big wow! And lots of take-away for me, too. Thanks, Laura

  26. reocochran says:

    Wow, this was a passionate and we’ll written post, Jennie. I have his children’s books (most true children’s books’ readers have at least read them) and another classic one at home. I’m on vacation so I will try to remember the one I like even better than E.B. White’s.
    Adult literature needs to stay “quality” as much as children’s. When I would babysit as a 12 year old, I loved picking out a book to read (skim) while the children slept.
    I wrote a post about Elements of Style and another good “tutor.” I like authors like Jean Kerr, P.G. Wodehouse and other ones like James Thurber, who capture an era and the language of the times.
    I admire how E.B. chose to write simply and from his own experiences.

    • Jennie says:

      This is wonderful, Robin. Thank you for going beyond and adding fabulous points and thoughts to this post. I haven’t read Elements of Style! I’d better do that. The language back then was lovely, wasn’t it? And E.B. White’s choice of writing was a good one. 🙂

      • reocochran says:

        Mr. White’s choice of writing children’s books after having had such a prestigious writing career is a true calling and blessing, Jennie!
        I like both Strunk’s and White’s usage of examples which are relatable in their books. I believe E.B. White’s is easier “digested” and now know why! He didn’t ramble or go off track! 😀

      • Jennie says:

        Exactly! He ‘just said it’. I think things happen for a reason, and clearly White was meant to leave a mark on children’s literature.

  27. mitchteemley says:

    Great summary-tribute to a write I have admired and been influenced by, but confess I knew little about. Thank you, Jennie!

    • Jennie says:

      Thanks, Mitch. I’m glad you enjoyed this. Like you, I learned so much about a writer I have always liked. This book was a winner and made an enormous impression on me. Best to you.

  28. I love this post, Jennie, and thank you for it. Great reminders here. Elements of Style and Charlotte’s Web are two favourites of ours.

  29. This so reminded me of my adventure in Tech Writing… even after a degree, I find the whole premise of making words work a challenge….I think fiction writers are hot houses of vocabulary and phrasing; we spew verbiage all over the page, and must learn that gardening means learning how to prune — even beautiful flowers and healthy stems — all because to do so makes the plant life and our prose flower more potent blooms. It’s why I blog: I ramble on here so I won’t be so inclined in my fiction…

    • Jennie says:

      Beautifully said! I love your analogy to gardening, as words often need pruning to truly flourish. Not an easy task! And, your words are a work of beauty, KC.

  30. Pingback: Hear Ye, Hear Ye! E.B. White on How To Write from Jennie Fitzkee | Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

  31. Pingback: Hear Ye, Hear Ye! E.B. White on How To Write | Campbells World

  32. Great post, Jennie. I’ll have to look up the book you suggest. Thanks, Sue for reblogging this post. 🙂 — Suzanne

  33. Oh Jennie, a truly marvelous post! You made the book sound wonderful. The rejection on Stewart Little nearly made me holler out loud! (That’s when LOL is not enough.) 😀 Hugs on the wing.

    • Jennie says:

      Thank you, Teagan. Yes, the horrendous rejection on Stuart Little… can you imagine having your book read by the NYC Library in order to pass muster? That was a holler our loud! Hugs to you. 🙂

  34. Annika Perry says:

    Jennie, this is a wonderful post of a brilliant book! I only read it last month on the recommendation of a blogger! Oh, it was so touching and brilliantly written….I loved learning about his craft and the various first sentences. Lessons for all writers here! 😀

  35. Isn’t Melissa Sweet’s book gorgeous?! It’s one of those I had to own as I knew I’d want to flip through it again and again. She and E. B. White’s granddaughter were at an event I attended last year–fun to hear them talk about him. White had such a clear, simple style (although not at all simple to pull off). I love the audio version of him reading “Charlotte’s Web.” Apparently it took him several recordings to get through the emotional parts. Nice post!

    • Jennie says:

      I love this book, too!! I’ve checked it out of the library twice – time to buy it for myself. His niece lives in Townsend, and when the book was published I urged the librarian to have her visit, as she visited once before. She is coming in April with his typewriter, voice recordings, and much more. I am thrilled! I can only imagine how exciting it was to hear Melissa and his granddaughter at an event. So glad you enjoyed the post, Marcia. Thank you!

  36. Lara/Trace says:

    Jenny, I still have my college copy of Elements of Style – it might be old but the best book EVER!

  37. Lara/Trace says:

    Small book, big message.

  38. I just read Elements of Style a few weeks ago. It has wonderful tips, but has made me self-conscious whenever I write. I suppose my perfectionist nature should take some blame! Does Some Writer! have tips for authors?

    • Jennie says:

      The book is E.B. White’s journey to writing. While it doesn’t give specific tips, just reading his pathway and inspiration to writing is a big dose of tips.

  39. Wow, Jennie, this is fascinating! Charlotte’s Web is one of my favorite books of all time. Andy’s advice went straight into my heart (both about just saying the words & also not speaking down to children). Thank you so much!
    Many blessings,
    Debbie
    ps – this made my night.

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