A friend of mine has begun a new career writing for an online financial newsletter. He came to me for advice, knowing that I’ve been a commercial writer, and I passed on the recommendation my journalism instructor gave to my class in 1977.
My instructor was a fulltime newspaperman who taught journalism in an extension course at the University of California, San Diego, where I had just graduated. He held aloft a copy of The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White and said, “Buy it, read it, memorize it.”
Then he set the slim book back down on the table and went on with his talk, of which I remember nothing else.
Uncharacteristically, I actually did read the little book. And became so entranced that I did, indeed, practically memorize what is affectionately known among writers and editors as “Strunk & White.” As it turned out, I would be teaching the little book myself just two years later, as a graduate teaching assistant at the very place where the book was born: Cornell University.
And so I pass the good word to you, dear reader, if you like to write: “Buy it, read it, memorize it.” The advice is as useful today, as this nearly ideal how-to book celebrates its 50th birthday, as it was a generation ago.
Writing, as most everyone who does it will agree, is hard work. Last month I had the honor of sitting on a panel at David Allen’s Getting Things Done Summit with one of this country’s most accomplished journalists, James Fallows. He told the audience that writing was still hard for him, yet he did it every day, as his many articles and bestselling books can attest.
How a practically perfect writer wrote
E.B. White himself, who may have come closest to being the perfect writer, had a devil of a time traveling from his initial draft to his final—even with a work as (deceptively) simple as Charlotte’s Web.
Cornell archivist Elaine Engst explains what it was like to examine all the drafts of Charlotte’s Web: “…the first draft is completely different from the finished book. What’s wonderful about looking at his drafts is that you see that even for somebody who was pretty close to a perfect writer, how much work went into his books: a ton of it.”
Yet eclipsing White’s gifts to young readers is his enduring gift to writers of all ages. His spare additions to his old English professor’s classroom guide, abiding by the now-famous precept “omit needless words,” produced something as close to the perfect how-to book ever published.
(Brief pause here for a commercial break: Have you read Levenger’s very own E. B. White work? We unearthed some of his early essays from The New Yorker and published them as a freestanding book for the first time. We were awed both by what he said and how he said it. Check out Notes on Our Times if you haven’t already. It’s uncannily timely for today.)
The alluring possibility that other nearly perfect how-to books exist, and searching for them, is one of the most enjoyable quests we have in leading our well-read lives. And so, dear reader, I ask you: do you know of other nearly perfect how-to books? Please share with the rest of the class.