Janet L. Kayfetz

The art and craft of writing and speaking

Month: November, 2013

E. B. White and the Job of a Writer


What are your views about the writer’s commitment to politics, international affairs? You have written so much (The Wild Flag, etc.) about federal and international issues.


“A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”


In a country such as ours, which has become increasingly enamored of and dependent upon science and technology, what role do you see for the writer?


“The writer’s role is what it has always been: he is a custodian, a secretary. Science and technology have perhaps deepened his responsibility but not changed it. In ‘The Ring of Time,’ I wrote: ‘As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost. But it is not easy to communicate anything of this nature.’

A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me. One role of the writer today is to sound the alarm. The environment is disintegrating, the hour is late, and not much is being done. Instead of carting rocks from the moon, we should be carting the feces out of Lake Erie.”

From “E. B. White, The Art of the Essay.” 1969. 


Introducing Captions

A caption is the voice of an image. It speaks for a photo; a diagram; a chart; a bar graph; a drawing; an outline; a list.

It is the job of the writer to give the image voice so that the reader understands its significance and value.

After you have given the caption a title, what other details should be included? You might consider the WALTER approach to writing a clear and helpful caption. Remember — the caption should serve to advance your ideas and bring your reader to a better understanding of your point of view.

Jelena Marašević, a PhD student in the Department of Electrical Engineering at Columbia University, attended my Academic Writing class for PhD students this September-October. Here is what Jelena says about captions — and here are her before and after captions for the same image. Thank you Jelena!

“Before taking the class, I was not sure what to write in a figure caption. I thought that it is better to only have a title for a figure, and explain in the text what the figure presents. Here is an example of the same figure I used in a project report in the Spring semester, and that I am using in a paper I am currently writing (the relation before-after should be clear).”





Bren Writers

The lagoon, UCSB

The lagoon, UCSB

Announcing a new blog!

BREN WRITERS — Environmentally-inspired snippets 

Inaugurated by the community of writers in the 2013 Writing Skills for Environmental Professionals – Advanced Class at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, UCSB.

Writing Letters

The name of my blog is “The art and craft of writing and speaking.”

I’ve focused my discussions mostly on the academic world. For writing, that includes looking at many of the things we need to think about when we write a formal academic text.

But what about other wonderful kinds of writing? Like the art of letter writing? I experience a different kind of joy when I pick up a pen and write a letter than I do when I use a keyboard to write an email or ecard.

Please enjoy this lovely piece on writing — and receiving — letters.


 “Yesterday morning, I sat at my desk, took out pen and paper, an envelope and a roll of stamps and began to write. No, I wasn’t mailing a check or returning an online purchase — or recreating a scene from a Jane Austen novel. I was writing a letter.

This activity has become a weekly ritual for me, as I keep regular correspondence with several faraway loved ones. It started last year, with a postcard that my mother sent me — I taped it up next to my desk as a reminder to write back. Over time, my address book has grown to include friends of many different ages and locations: a girl from my high school now attending college in Ohio, cousins and aunts in Montana, a woman who I know well who lives in my home neighborhood. My wall is now covered with a collage of bright postcard photos and pages full of curling dark script . . .

The vast majority of students probably haven’t written and mailed a letter since the days of post-birthday-party thank-you notes. It’s true that our culture has fully shifted away from this by now — and of course, this is partially for good reason. It’s impossible to deny that it’s actually much faster and more effective to keep in touch with people via text, email or Facebook. But there’s still something to be said for keeping actual physical correspondence, intentionally choosing to forego the ease of the computer in order to have a more meaningful exchange of ideas.

Writing a letter isn’t something that you can just dash off in a few minutes, replete with misspellings and abbreviations — you have to actually grab a piece of paper, sit down at a desk and think a bit first. The simple act of choosing to write a letter already shows an investment in your interaction with the person to whom you’re sending it, that you have something worthwhile to say and have taken the time to do so in a full and complete manner.

And there’s something to the materiality of a letter, the thrill of unfolding the piece of paper and knowing that another set of hands far away has held it too. Unlike emails, letters aren’t in danger of disappearing into cyberspace with one false click. My mother still has a box full of the letters she sent to her parents in college, which she let me look through over the summer. Leafing through the pages, I could see the development of the handwriting, as well as of the woman who wrote with it. Somehow a folder of emails just doesn’t have that same effect . . .

[There’s] just something about opening my P.O. box each week to find a stack of thick, handwritten envelopes, which no high-pitched ping or Facebook notification tone will ever be able to match. And it would be irresponsible of our generation to sacrifice this simple pleasure entirely, for the sake of mere convenience.”

From A Weekly Ritual, by Emma Fallone. In The Yale Daily News, Nov. 8, 2013. http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2013/11/08/fallone-a-weekly-ritual/

The Two Parts of the Writing Process

Producing a written text has two parts. One part is the generation of content; the other part is the editing of content.

Yesterday, in the first class meeting of my writing class at UCSB’s Bren School, I asked “How many of you spend an hour writing a single paragraph?” Many of the students raised their hands.

Why does it take these folks so long to produce a single paragraph of text? Because they are blending the two parts of the writing process.

Instead of first producing content in an uninterrupted flow and then editing what they have written, they are making changes to story, words, sentences, and organization as they compose.

If you are someone who writes and edits simultaneously, try something different.

Bren students engrossed in the composing process.

Bren students engrossed in the composing process.

Try to write your ideas without interrupting the flow — even if only for a few minutes at a time.

Then go back and play with your content — refine the meaning, logic, precision, voice, and readability.

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