E. B. White

the meaning of democracy

E. B. WHITE ON “THE MEANING OF DEMOCRACY”

This piece originally appeared in the Notes and Comment section of the July 3, 1943, issue of The New Yorker. “The 40s: The Story of a Decade,” an anthology of New Yorker articles, stories, and poems, will be released on Tuesday.

We received a letter from the Writers’ War Board the other day asking for a statement on “The Meaning of Democracy.” It presumably is our duty to comply with such a request, and it is certainly our pleasure.

Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.

E. B. White

THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE

9781594200694_custom-f03becf20830b170ef232802ff0e955a36b8ef02-s6-c30Turning to E.B. White for help with your writing is a double-edged sword. His advice is spot-on, unequivocal. Do it. Everything E. B. White has to say will improve your writing. However, read enough of his offerings from Elements of Style and you will soon grow to believe that you cannot do it. Writing that well, avoiding all those pitfalls- fatal missteps feels impossible. Now, if you’re reading this and you’re an arrogant writer, then go right ahead and dive into Elements of Style, and you’ll probably walk away thinking, I do all that already. As in all things arrogant, your thinking is misguided. You don’t, you’re wrong, and look again. Read one page of your writing and you’ll find these common weaknesses in style. When I read Elements of Style, I feel guilty of all he warns against. I’m pleased if I was at least already aware of the bad habit. There’s someone in my house who is obsessed with E.B. White. It’s not my four and a half year-old, although he is reading The Trumpet of the Swan.

We’ve always taken E.B. White very seriously in my household. When in doubt about creating straight-forward drama in our writing, my husband and I have turned to the first sentence of Charlotte’s Web more than once. “Where’s Pa going with that ax?” Recently, I sense we’re about to get way more steeped in him. As I write this, there are six of his books on my coffee table. I don’t want you to suffer vicariously from the notion that you just can’t do everything correctly, as he urges us to. So, I’ll share just a little of his sage advice. But trust, humble writer friends, there’s more good advice where this came from.

Write with nouns and verbs.

Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs; they are indispensable parts of speech…In general, however, it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give good writing its toughness and color.

Do not overstate.

When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgement or your poise…..A single overstatement, wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for readers, the object of your enthusiasm.

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