Thursday, November 8, 2012
A few years ago, William Zinsser composed a lengthy column on how he wrote and revised his classic guide “On Writing Well.” He tells us that in his own writing, he had tried to emulate E.B. White, among other accomplishments, the coauthor of “The Elements of Style.” Zinsser worried that he would have nothing new to say in his own book. Here is an excerpt:
The dominant manual at that time was The Elements of Style, by E. B. White and William Strunk Jr., which was E. B. White’s updating of the guide that had most influenced him, written in 1918 by his English professor at Cornell. My problem was that White was the writer who had most influenced me. His was the style—seemingly casual but urbane and wise—that I had long taken as my own model. How could I not agree with everything he said about language and usage in The Elements of Style? He was Goliath standing in my path.
But when I analyzed White’s book, its terrors evaporated. The Elements of Style was essentially a book of pointers and admonitions: Do this, don’t do that. As principles they were invaluable, but they were only principles, existing without context or reality. What his book didn’t teach was how to apply those principles to the various forms that nonfiction writing can take, each with its special requirements: travel writing, science writing, business writing, the interview, memoir, sports, criticism, humor. That’s what I taught in my course, and it’s what I would teach in my book. I wouldn’t compete with The Elements of Style; I would complement it.
That decision gave me my pedagogical structure. It also finally liberated me from E. B. White. I saw that I was long overdue to stop trying to write like E. B. White—and trying to be E. B. White, the sage essayist. He and I, after all, weren’t really much alike. He was a passive observer of events, withdrawn from the tumult, his world bounded by his office at The New Yorker and his house in rural Maine. I was a participant, a seeker of people and far places, change and risk. At Yale I had also become a teacher, my world enlarged by every new student who came along. The personal voice of the teacher, not the literary voice of the essayist, was the one I wanted narrating my book.
The column offers more on other aspects of Zinsser’s excerpts. Well worth reading.