E. B. White and Me

By Patricia Holland

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Every struggling new writer who has just earned a B.A. in English needs a dose of the career advice E. B. White once gave me. He had very definite views on how to write—what to write about and then—how to get it in print.

Since Andy really didn’t like his first name, Elwyn, he always asked his friends to use his nickname “Andy” although the byline on all of his stories, articles, essays, poems and books listed him as E. B. White.

Today, children may be the only readers who truly appreciate E.B. White for his  excellent stories. E.B. White’s children’s books have lived on past his death in 1985. Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan, are still very popular.

Some students currently in college probably know that E. B. White had a strong grasp on the rules of grammar and usage, but’s that all they know about him. In 1959, White took on a freelance project to revise William Strunk’s classic grammar guide, The Elements of Style. From then on the slim little book credited two authors “Strunk and White.” Andy revised it in 1972 and 1979.  

In 1978, I had the privilege of reading and copy editing some of his changes for the 1979 revision.  That’s when he steered me away from taking a graduate degree in English or journalism.

Students by the thousands applied to J-school in those days after the articles by two rookie reporters at The Washington Post, Woodward and Bernstein, resulted in President Nixon’s resignation in 1974.  Andy claimed an over-abundance of kids graduating as journalists would lead to a supply-and-demand problem with too many very average English majors, untried journalists and poor writers vying for too few writing jobs.

“Crack the mold,” he said.  “You already have a good job at the National Geographic Society. Keep it and keep writing about things that interest you. Don’t depend on someone else to tell you how to write, that just comes with practice not with more schooling.”

A few days after Andy gave me that advice, he inserted the following passage in his manuscript for The Elements of Style, it was addressed to every writer (but I’ve always believed he wrote it for me):

Many references have been made in this book to ‘the reader,’ who has been much in the news. It is now necessary to warn you that your concern for the reader must be pure: you must sympathize with the reader’s plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the reader’s wants. Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living.

I took E.B. White’s advice to heart.

When I was younger, I did not value writing classes. I passed up the chance to take a Masters in English. That had an unexpected and unintended consequence.  Gradually I stopped writing fiction. Researching subjects, then writing non-fiction articles absorbed all my time and interest. I didn’t get sucked in to the Trend Machine and I did make a nice living, but something was missing.

Then I retired—and immediately enrolled in graduate school to work on a Masters in Fine Arts. My professors have pointed me in new directions. I feel like my personal compass once pointed only North, but now in my essays, memoirs, stories, and poems I can hit all points on the compass.

– Patricia Holland