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· A White Paper on Clarity ·

"Writing almost killed you, and the hard part was making it look easy."

Roger Angell's New Yorker piece, Andy, on his stepfather E. B. White's prose, includes this sentence. I begin with his judgment for my students' sake, should they confuse ease of writing with ease of reading. It puts me in mind of Richard Sheridan's quip, "Easy writing makes vile hard reading," logically the regrettable obverse, and its all-too-frequent result.

Angell's own apt effort shines through in honor of White's limpid style, and his celebrated capacity for disciplined, pains-taking, ever-demanding work.

White's gift to writers is clarity [he writes]. . . . Clarity is the message of "The Elements of Style," the handbook he based on an early model written by Will Strunk, a professor of his at Cornell, which has helped more than ten million writers — the senior honors candidate, the rewriting lover, the overburdened historian — through the whichy thicket. "Write in a way that comes naturally," it pleads. "Do not explain too much." Write like White, in short, and his readers, finding him again and perhaps absorbing in the process something of that steely modesty, may sense as well the uses of patience in waiting to discover what kind of writer will turn up on their page, and finding contentment with that writer's life.

You can hear in these words — those of "adoption," as I'd call them — Angell's own acknowledgement of a quite natural identification with "more than ten million writers" like him, all of whom have profited from his stepfather's example.

He was a demanding worker [Angell adds]. He rewrote the first page of "Charlotte's Web" eight times, and put the early manuscript away for several months, "to let the body heat out of it." Then he wrote the book again, enlarging the role of the eight-year-old girl, Fern, at the center of its proceedings. He was the first writer I observed at work, back in my early teens. Each Tuesday morning, he disappeared into his study after breakfast to write his weekly Comment page for The New Yorker — a slow process, with many pauses between the brief thrashings of his Underwood. He was silent at lunch and quickly went back to his room to finish the piece before it went off to New York in the afternoon mailbag, left out in the box by the road. "It's no good," he often said morosely afterward. But when the new issue turned up the next week the piece was good — unstrained and joyful, a snap to read.

Would that we all wrote so well, and worked so hard.


A small sidelight might also second a post I wrote just a year ago on Friedrich Nietzsche:

Whoever knows he is deep [The Gay Science, 1882], strives for clarity; whoever would like to appear deep to the crowd, strives for obscurity. For the crowd considers anything deep if only it cannot see to the bottom: the crowd is so timid and afraid of going into the water.

Swim, of course, at your own risk.

Posted by Styles on February 27, 2005 01:05 PM

Sharks abound!

Posted by Aunt Huldah on February 27, 2005 05:22 PM

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