Janet L. Kayfetz

The art and craft of writing and speaking

Month: December, 2012

E. B. White and Audience


Is there any shifting of gears in writing such children’s books as Charlottes Web and Stuart Little? Do you write to a particular age group?


Anybody who shifts gears when he writes for children is likely to wind up stripping his gears. But I don’t want to evade your question. There is a difference between writing for children and for adults. I am lucky, though, as I seldom seem to have my audience in mind when I am at work. It is as though they didn’t exist.

Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. I handed them, against the advice of experts, a mouse-boy, and they accepted it without a quiver. In Charlottes Web, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.

Some writers for children deliberately avoid using words they think a child doesn’t know. This emasculates the prose and, I suspect, bores the reader. Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net. They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention. I’m lucky again: my own vocabulary is small, compared to most writers, and I tend to use the short words. So it’s no problem for me to write for children. We have a lot in common.

From E. B. White, The Art of the Essay No. 1, The Paris Review 1969                                                      http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4155/the-art-of-the-essay-no-1-e-b-white                                                                                                                 



In our discussion of Francine Prose’s ideas about the importance of words, I suggested to my class that words are like the DNA of writing. Bren student and biologist Taylor Debevec responded to this idea in an email:

“Your statement that words are the DNA of a written piece of work is brilliant. DNA is made up of 4 different nucleotides that are paired together in different combinations billions of times. All together those billions of pairs make a code which is used to develop an organism and the different traits it possesses.

The beautiful thing is that even within the same species, each organism has a slightly different code that makes it unique. Changing the pattern of nucleotides creates mutations that can be wonderful and help the organism and its descendants evolve, but they can also have negative effects as drastic as cutting the life of the organism short.

This is the fascinating and simple foundation of understanding the basis of life as we know it.

Thinking about words this way is amazing.  With so many words in our language and other languages across the world, there are a seemingly infinite amount of permutations that could be put together as code for a story. The placement of each word plays a crucial role in the overall outcome and health of the piece of work. Errors or poor assembly of the words can result in a poor final document.

Good thing we get to edit :).”

Thanks Taylor!

Reading and Writing

Here is an interesting passage we discussed in my Bren School advanced writing course:

From Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (2006) by Francine Prose (http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/08/31/how-to-read-like-a-writer/):

“With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. . . . it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.”

“Every page was once a blank page, just as every word that appears on it now was not always there, but instead reflects the final result of countless large and small deliberations. All the elements of good writing depend on the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another. And what grabs and keeps our interest has everything to do with those choices.”

(You will find more ideas about writing and reading at http://www.brainpickings.org.)

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