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Amber Paulen

E. B. White on Style

Young writers often suppose that style is a garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable. Style has no such separate entity; it is nondetachable, unfilterable. The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is himself he is approaching, no other; and he should begin by turning resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style—all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity. — The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E. B. White

The first lesson in White’s approach to style is: “Place yourself in the background.”

Rarely do I think of style as plainness. Rather style, in all its incarnations, implies more than the average, clothes, prose, computer programming, whatever; style seems flourish and flair. It’s natural to think style in writing is something additional, tacked on to bare bones subject-verb-object like a tassel. But style, if it’s to be anything noteworthy, must live inside the writing, must shine from the inside out.

Maybe that’s why I was surprised White’s first approach to style puts the writer in the backseat. Style comes from the words that come from the writer, right? White is suggesting a kind of hovering trick where the writer is suspended above the words coming from her fingers, separated and connected, where the words come first.

The concept bears thinking over: write in a way where the writer isn’t there.

In the explanation of the approach White says this:

A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As he becomes proficient in the use of the language, his style will emerge, because he himself will emerge, and when this happens he will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate him from other minds, other hearts—which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as the principal reward.

After all, it’s the words that touch others, not the writer’s hand.


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