E.B. White’s Approach to Style

penI recently read The Paris Review’s interview of author E.B. White.  Though I have pieces of Trumpet of the Swan and Charlotte’s Web committed to memory, I never knew that Mr. White also worked for The New Yorker and published an English language style guide.  Here are some of his extremely helpful tips on achieving a solid writing style for any type of prose.  For all you creative writers out there, these are the 21 golden rules of producing good, strong prose!

“An Approach to Style,” by E.B. White, excerpted from “The Elements of Style”.  Courtesy of Linn Benton Community College:

“Here, following, are some suggestions and cautionary hints that may help the beginner find the
way to a satisfactory style.”

1. Place yourself in the background.
“. . . to achieve style, begin by affecting none — that is, place yourself in the background. A
careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style.”

2. Write in a way that comes naturally.
“The use of language begins with imitation . . . it is almost impossible to avoid imitating what
one admires. Never imitate consciously, but do not worry about being an imitator; take pains to
admire what is good.”

3. Work from a suitable design.
“You raise a pup tent from one sort of vision, a cathedral from another. This does not mean that
you must sit with a blueprint always in front of you, merely that you had best anticipate what you
are getting into.”

4. Write with nouns and verbs.
“In general . . . it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give to good writing its toughness
and color.”

5. Revise and rewrite.
“Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major
surgery. This is a common occurrence in all writing, and among the best writers.”

6. Do not overwrite.
“Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.”

7. Do not overstate.
“A single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for the reader, the object of the writer‟s

8. Avoid the use of qualifiers.
“Rather, very, little, pretty — these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the
blood of words.”

9. Do not affect a breezy manner.
“The breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything
that pops into his head is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and
carries the day.”

10. Use orthodox spelling.
“The language manages somehow to keep pace with events.”

11. Do not explain too much.
“It is seldom advisable to tell all. Be sparing, for instance, in the use of adverbs after “he said,‟
‟she replied,‟ and the like.

12. Do not construct awkward adverbs.
“Do not dress words up by adding ‘ly’ to them, as though putting a hat on a horse.”

13. Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.
“Dialogue is a total loss unless you indicate who the speaker is.”

14. Avoid fancy words.
“Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar
word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.”
“Never call a stomach a tummy without good reason.”

15. Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.
“The best dialect writers, by and large, are economical of their talents; they use the minimum,
not the maximum, of deviation from the norm, thus sparing the reader as well as convincing

16. Be clear.
“When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are
only fair.”

17. Do not inject opinion.
“Unless there is a good reason for its being there, do not inject opinion into a piece of writing.
We all have opinions about almost everything, and the temptation to toss them in is great . . .
Opinions scattered indiscriminately about leave the mark of egotism on a work.”

18. Use figures of speech sparingly.
“The reader needs time to catch his breath; he can‟t be expected to compare everything with
something else, and no relief in sight.”

19. Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.
“The longest way round is usually the shortest way home, and the one truly reliable shortcut in
writing is to choose words that are strong and sure-footed, to carry the reader on his way.”

20. Avoid foreign languages.
“Write in English.”

21. Prefer the standard to the offbeat.
“The young writer should learn to spot them — words that at first glance seem freighted with
delicious meaning, but that soon burst in air, leaving nothing but a memory of bright sound.”

“…Style is the writer, and therefore what you are, rather than what you know, will at last
determine your style.”

Post submitted by Michelle


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