The late E.B. White wrote for the New Yorker magazine for 51 years. From 1925 to 1976, he contributed more than eighteen hundred articles.
New Yorker editor William Shawn credited White with creating a new literary form — mainly short items that were light in tone and serious in substance. To us, White’s 90-year-old “new form” sounds a lot like today’s blogging (if everything goes well).
The word “blogger” didn’t appear until the 1990s. But in pre-digital 1969, White described in an interview with the Paris Review how he approached his work for the New Yorker. He sounded a lot like a . . . . blogger.
The things I have managed to write have been varied and spotty — a mishmash. Except for certain routine chores, I never knew in the morning how the day was going to develop. I was like a hunter, hoping to catch sight of a rabbit. There are two faces to discipline. If a man (who writes) feels like going to a zoo, he should by all means go to a zoo. He might even be lucky, as I once was when I paid a call at the Bronx Zoo and found myself attending the birth of twin fawns. It was a fine sight, and I lost no time writing a piece about it. The other face of discipline is that, zoo or no zoo, diversion or no diversion, in the end a man must sit down and get the words on paper, and against great odds. This takes stamina and resolution. Having got them on paper, he must still have the discipline to discard them if they fail to measure up; he must view them with a jaundiced eye and do the whole thing over as many times as is necessary to achieve excellence, or as close to excellence as he can get. This varies from one time to maybe twenty.
White is best known today for his much loved children’s books — Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan.
He also co-authored with William Strunk the definitive English-language writing guide, The Elements of Style. “Strunk & White,” as it’s commonly known, contains the single best writing rule ever composed — for bloggers or anyone else. Strunk wrote:
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
E.B. White died in 1985. His books still sell hundreds of thousands of copies every year.
George Plimpton and Frank H. Crowther’s full interview of E.B. White in the Fall 1969 issue of the Paris Review is here.
Richard L. Cassin is the publisher and editor of the FCPA Blog. He can be contacted here.