The writer’s duty: to lift people up

Reading time: Just over 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss the writerly musings of E.B. White…

I discovered E.B. White when I took English 100 more than 40 years ago. My professor assigned his definitive book The Elements of Style to the entire class, declaring it our “Bible.” I’ve since had occasion to revisit that advice (never more delightfully, than when I read Spunk and Bite by Arthur Plotnik), but I’ve always retained my affection for White.

Recently, while scrolling through the remarkable Brain Pickings website, I stumbled across a delightful post on White headlined: “E. B. White on the Role and Responsibility of the Writer.

Here was the paragraph I enjoyed the most:

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.

But I also appreciated the way in which website owner Maria Popova made the piece wonderfully current, even though White (1899 – 1985) died more than three decades ago. Here is what she wrote:

But perhaps most brilliantly, in one swift sentence White captures everything that’s wrong with the sensationalism that permeates media today, from the HuffPostification of headlines to the general linkbait alarmism of language designed to squeeze out another barely-monetized pageview:

“Shocking writing is like murder: the questions the jury must decide are the questions of motive and intent.”

Isn’t that an interesting challenge — to consider the motive and intent of writers? I’ll do that the next time I’m about to be sucked in to the slightly  linkbait-y headlines that sometimes appear even on respectable sites, like The Guardian.