Monday, October 31, 2011

On the Eve of NaNoWriMo: Words of Wisdom from E.B. White

I was madly searching through my old paper files a few days ago, looking for the novel concepts that I had thought up, typed out, and filed in years past. I needed to pluck one to use for NaNoWriMo. (That's right, I'm going to be playing catchup with all you serious outliners who know exactly how your 50,000 words are going to spill onto the page. I'll have the concept and the main plot points figured out by tonight, though, so I've decided to just have fun and let it rip.) Anyway, in my search I came upon a sheet of writing guidelines from E.B. White that I'd taped to the wall behind my desktop computer long ago (when I had a desktop computer). I'd titled it Style Reminders.

For anyone who is new to The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, or who hasn't glanced at it since you were required to way back in high school or college English courses, guess what? This old little book, as it was called by Professor Strunk of Cornell University, who wrote its original form around the time of World War I, still has something incredible to offer to those of us loosening up, stretching, and homing in for the challenge of NaNoWriMo. How perfect is that? Some things about writing just don't change.

Here are the style reminders, updated by Professor Strunk's student and eventual publishing partner, E.B.White. They are for writers of fiction, and especially for those who are engaged in the process of learning to be great writers.

Style Reminders
from E.B. White

1.  Place yourself in the background. Write in ways that draw the reader's attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author. 

2.  Write in a way that comes naturally.

3.  Work from a suitable design. Before beginning to compose something, gauge the nature and extent of the enterprise and work from a suitable design.

4.  Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.

5.  Revise and rewrite. (okay, we know this one is for AFTER November)

6.  Do not overwrite.

7.  Do not overstate.

8.  Avoid the use of qualifiers (rather, very, little, pretty, seemingly).

9.  Do not affect a breezy manner.

10. Use orthodox spelling.

11. Do not explain too much. (e.g. in the use of adverbs, 'he said' is better than 'he said consolingly.' Show how he feels by his appearance, actions or words.)

12. Do not construct awkward adverbs. (e.g. tangledly or tiredly)

13. Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.

14. Avoid fancy words.

15. Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.

16. Be clear. Although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one.

17. Do not inject opinion.

18. Use figures of speech sparingly.

19. Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.

20. Avoid foreign languages.

21. Prefer the standard to the offbeat in language usage. As a beginner, err on the side of conservatism, on the side of established language usage. No idiom is taboo, no accent forbidden; there is simply a better chance of doing well if the writer holds a steady course, enters the stream of English quietly, and does not thrash about. 

Sound familiar? I can't promise that I'm going to follow every one of these guidelines to the letter, but I'm going to prop this list in front of me while I write. When in doubt fall back on these. If the words are flowing with clarity of style, the story will come out more clearly and easily, too. Of course, this is NaNo, so in the extreme situation of freezing up, which I've heard happens in NaNo a lot, blow something up! (I just love that piece of advice that came from quidforquill in a previous post comment) Just be sure to do it with clarity!!

Have fun everyone. See you on the trail.

~ Linda


  1. Thanks for the advice! I don't think I can follow all of them either, but I will try!

    Happy Halloween, and good luck in NaNo!

  2. Hi, Linda,

    I am so proud of you ... I am glad your jumping right into NaNo... Good luck! I know you will end up with a winner.

    This is an awesome post. Great advice from a classic author. I will definitely filing this one away in the old archives.

    It's been ages ... I hope all is well.

  3. Hi Michael, yes it HAS been ages. All well here, have been totally hunkered down finishing revisions. But hopping over to your blog now!

  4. Love Strunk and White. It was the first book on writing/grammar I ever bought!

  5. Lydia, I'm not surprised! Strunk and White are awesome, aren't they?

  6. Linda, this is excellent and just in time. I'm going to give the NaNoWriMo a shot. But, I have to warm you... I plan on violating rules 6. and 7. I will overwrite and overstate and fix it during the editing phase.
    Thank you for sharing this great work during a critical time. For all the other writing in NaNoWriMo... Good luck! And write on....and on... and on. At least for 30 days.

  7. GREAT tips!!!! Good luck with NaNo.

  8. Heh, Karlene, I do believe you've captured the spirit of NaNoWriMo. Okay, must now go get ready to write on, and on, and on!

  9. LOve that book. LOve those tips. Wishing you speedy creative thoughts and ideas and even speedier fingers to capture them to paper or computer.

  10. This is great advice, thank you for it Linda. And best of luck to you with NaNo! I'll be cheering you on!

  11. Me, too, Em. Thanks for the good wishes!