The best writing practices after 2500 years

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The best writing practices after 2500 years


I’m new to the roundtable and haven’t read my colleagues’ advice on writing, and I am sure some is sound. I haven’t taught composition long — only three years. I haven’t published anything though at long last I have a few things that may be worth writing, and more importantly worth reading. My credentials are more rare. It’s not that I’ve taught a lot, read a lot, enjoy students a lot. This is all true. Rather, it’s that I’ve discovered what we have forgotten.

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I’ve gone through most the best composition books written. At the end of the day I recommend at least a bit of reading from “The Underground Grammarian“. It’s NOT dry except its laugh out loud, wry humor. (At the link go to left margin, and click volume one. Then click first issue, Jan. ’77, and feast on a different kind of grammar, what was meant by old school English dons. If it’s not humorous, you may now despair of ever learning to write.) He was an excellent writer and knew the lost secret; you will see his quality if not how he attained it. The truth is that for centuries until the nineteenth century, the art of writing was known though even back then the art was waning. I won’t give Flannery O’Connor’s appraisal of the situation since it is sure to offend some. She, however, had learned by the old method. And it shows.


I don’t like to reinvent the wheel. My “rare gift” is merely that I’ve studied many of the best methods of writing (and rhetoric) from the old days: from ancients like Quintillian and Renaissance men like Erasmus and Thomas More. All our writing instruction — even what’s called classical — is very watered down Erasmus or the English equivalent (cf. De Duplici Copia Rerum ac Verborum). I don’t entirely subscribe to his method (which is still better than any now), but it is the method followed ever since, and it is thin broth now and lost all savor. The much lauded Strunk and White not only is just a small part of Erasmus, but — worse — they break all their own rules, especially their most emphatic.

There are several ways to become an accomplished (or even decent) writer, without mastering Latin and Greek and having the ability to write well in both. I haven’t accomplished that myself. Indeed Shakespeare only had limited mastery in each, enough to polish his natural genius. What methods can I recommend given my long study? Some Latin is very helpful, but at least a solid grammar is indispensable. Oh!! And you’ll be happy to know that the Romans didn’t have punctuation, not even spaces between words. That’s hardly the most important part of grammar. That’s not to say those rules aren’t helpful to English, just not what it really is. And grammar isn’t too hard to master. But there is another trick that anyone can do. T. S. Eliot recommends imitating a master. To learn Greek and to write better, both Erasmus and More competed with one another on translating Lucian … from Greek to Latin!! It’s an old method for really honing one’s ability: not just translating, but finding just the right word. (And Thomas More is at top of the best English writers. He would be my choice for imitation if ever I have time.) As Twain says, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ‘Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Translation in the old school (done well) was finding just the right word and phrase to express the original, and that endeavor also helps with understanding. As Eliot notes, one can do something similar in English. And so, find one, good — nay most excellent — writer, maybe someone like Dryden, someone at least two hundred years old. But get good advice on that from someone who knows what is worth imitating. Study them, read everything the author wrote and reread it, then imitate them, even rewrite them in your own words before imitating. It’s work that brings its own reward and great pleasure. Forget the essays for school, which can facilitate writing but mostly as an aid to the last method I will recommend. You may learn to write an essay that isn’t actually boring, but little else.

Another method to writing is to study the ancient art of Rhetoric. I haven’t found a good book for that. Instead I offer Aristotle’s Organon. Study it. Master it. I’m sure there are some others too. But make that your own. Quintillian or Cicero will help too. Rhetoric used to be the whole business of several years of school (typically beginning around 11-15). You will have to practice too, not just read. Ignatius insisted that it be exclusively studied for three years … and that included reading poetry, well written history, and letters. But they would study line by line, word by word, with attention to detail. At the least, Aristotle will help you to use words well, to think about them, to write logically (a word much abused for centuries now).

Finally, if these daunt you, another method of learning to write is to spend many hours and years steeping yourself in the greatest writers. They will rub off on you. And I mean many hours and only the best (read “dead for centuries”). If you can’t understand Shakespeare, watch the productions and go to a theater. But don’t do too many, just the best. Quality and time matter. Marinate in them, linger on each word, ask why he uses that: a great writer uses no word in vain. And read with friends. And try to find an excellent teacher. Whatever it takes. If you spend long hours and years to understand these, you will easily understand anything else written and you will naturally in time come to write better.

In any case most of the above have written books or essays on writing. They give the best advice. I’ve used the “composition” books, or tried. They are deplorable. Kreeft’s Socratic Logic can help. Corbett’s Classical Rhetoric is ok. And there is a decent series called Classical Writing that begins with Homer and Aesop. Those may help you, but they fall far short of what our forefathers did, both in quality and kinds of writing. Keep in mind that they spent several years, most the day in school, doing just this, and only then moved on. Our few minutes a day spent on scatter brained methods can’t compare. And it shows. Our writing (even most of the best) falls far short of theirs. To illustrate, Leo XIII was writing good Latin poems at age thirteen, John Stewart Mill the same in Greek at age twelve. They were both very bright, but that was the normal coursework at that age. Another example is the letter that Vives wrote a young man on what order to take up the ancient Greek books: he wrote the letter in Latin, the boy was thirteen. Back then, you learned all the skills for writing very young. Today, we never accomplish this and probably spend no less time when all the years are added up.

I end with two notes. I’ve taught or studied most every subject, widely, some deeply. Math is somewhat important, but overrated besides Euclid. Learning to read, to write, to think clearly is the only part of the modern standard curriculum that really matters. We all speak, read, think our whole lives: it’s an every job skill, a life skill. I don’t ever use my Calculus, but I talk, think, read, and write both for work and at leisure. Certainly, extracurriculars like debate, drama, music, and the fine arts are helpful to rounding out a person — so too breaking a sweat in the fields, taking a walk in the woods, or doing acts of charity. But even math does not do so much to develop the mind as reading and studying great books; better yet would be to take up one of these books in an orderly way, like the Ratio Studiorum. True excellence in writing flows from excellence in thought and speaking. To be the best is to study the best and master and make them your own. For this, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas are the summit still. And Homer, Virgil, and Dante — in English Chaucer and Shakespeare — still reign and that reign will end no time soon even if none can read them.

About The Author

Nine Year Teacher Of Most Disciplines
I had started university on track for a physics/engineering major but switched to philosophy and literature. I was neck and neck with the eventual valedictorian in my engineering class before switching. Most my courses thereafter were in literature, classical languages, and philosophy, despite my ...
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