On the Art of Writing


On the Art of Writing

A collection of quotations on the craft, chiefly from masters

(In no order)

Peter Sjöstedt-H

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‘Language is a work of art and should be regarded as such.’ – Schopenhauer (PPii, §289a)

line white philosophy writing style craft art

‘To use many words for the purpose of conveying few ideas is everywhere the infallible sign of mediocrity; whereas that of an eminent mind is the inclusion of many ideas into few words.’ – Schopenhauer (PPii, ch.XXIII)

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‘Those who know they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound to the crowd strive for obscurity’. – Nietzsche (GS§173)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘Every unfamiliar subject or concept should be clearly defined; and neither discussed as if the reader knew all about it already nor stylistically disguised. … No idea should be presented more than once in the same prose passage. … Sentences and paragraphs should be linked together logically and intelligibly. … The order of ideas in a sentence should be such that the reader need not rearrange them in his mind. … No unnecessary idea, phrase or word should be included in a sentence.’ – R. Graves & A. Hodge (TROYS)

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‘The truth is that the writer’s art consists above everything in making us forget he is using words … [so] there is nothing left but the flow of meaning which runs through the words, nothing but two minds which, without intermediary, seem to vibrate directly in unison with one another.’ – Henri Bergson (M-E, ch.2)

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‘A line [of poetry] will take us hours maybe; yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, our stitching and unstitching has been naught.’ – W. B. Yeats (AC)

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‘The scribblings of commonplace minds are laid on as if by a stencil and thus consist of nothing but ready-made expressions and phrases … The superior mind fashions every phrase expressly for the case which he is at present concerned.’ – Schopenhauer (PPii, ch. XXIII)

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‘What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.’ – George Orwell (PEL)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is prose; words in their best order; – poetry; the best words in the best order.’ – Coleridge

line white philosophy writing style craft art

‘I love everything brief and find that in general the longer the work is, the less there is in it.’ – Kurt Gödel

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘You can always, always connect two dots with a straight line. But add another word and they’re tricolons. … Tricolons sound great if the third is longer … Shakespeare knew it when he wrote: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”.’ – Mark Forsyth (EE)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘We say the strongest things simply, provided only that we are surrounded by people who believe in our strength: such an environment educates one to “simplicity of style.” The mistrustful speak emphatically; the mistrustful also make others emphatic.’ – Nietzsche (GS§226)

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‘Every good book should at once be read through again partly because the matters dealt with, when read a second time, are better understood in their sequence, and only when we know the end do we really understand the beginning … it is as if we are looking at an object in a different light.’ – Schopenhauer (PPii, §296a)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘Sentences should not be so long that the reader loses his way in them. … No unnecessary strain should be put on the reader’s memory.’ – R. Graves & A. Hodge (TROYS)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘[V]enerable ancient languages such as Sanskrit, Greek, Arabic and Hebrew do not have the simplest grammar but the most difficult; while what is beyond doubt the most advanced of all languages, English, has so alarmingly few actual rules that, on the one hand, any uneducated foreigner can easily learn to understand it and speak some mangled version of it, while, on the other, only the greatest minds in the nation itself, men like Sir Charles Sherrington, Bertrand Russell or Gilbert Murray, are capable of expressing themselves in it clearly, intelligibly and in such fashion as to delight the reader or listener.’  – Erwin Schrödinger

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‘The great poet creates only out of his own reality … I know of no more heartrending reading than Shakespeare: what must a man have suffered to need to be a buffoon to this extent!’ – Nietzsche (EH, clever, §4)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘Synaesthesias of smell are jarring and effective, and are probably an easy shortcut to a memorable line … Eduard Hanslick … wrote of Tchaikovsky’s First Violin Concerto that it showed there could be “music that stinks to the ear”.’ – Mark Forsyth (EE)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something. Don’t use such an expression as ‘dim land of peace.’ It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realising that the natural object is always the adequate symbol. Go in fear of abstractions.’ – Ezra Pound

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.” I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.’ – George Orwell

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘Style, in its finest sense, is the last acquirement of the educated mind.’ – A. N. Whitehead (AE)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘To communicate a state, an inner tension of pathos through signs, including the tempo of these signs – that is the meaning of every style. … Every style is good which actually communicates an inner state … Good style in itself [is] a piece of pure folly.’ – Nietzsche (EH, bks, §4)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘So much of the vigorous charm of American English derives from slang which, by its nature, must quickly die to make way for fresh slang … The lure of the up-to-date is a sad one, but even flashy coinages keep language vigorous and remind us that it is a reflection of man’s very mortal changeability.’ – Anthony Burgess (LMP)

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‘At almost all times there prevails in art as in literature some false fundamental view, fashion, or mannerism which is admired. Men of ordinary mentality eagerly endeavour to adopt and practise it. The man of insight recognizes and rejects it and remains out of fashion. After a few years, however, even the public comes to recognize the foolery for what it is.’ – Schopenhauer (PPii, §280)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘Metaphors should not be mated in such a way as to confuse or distract the reader. … Metaphors should not be piled on top of one another. … Metaphors should not be used in such close association with unmetaphorical language as to produce absurdity or confusion.’ – R. Graves & A. Hodge (TROYS)

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‘Style is the physiognomy of the mind and as such is more infallible than is that of the body. To imitate another’s style is equivalent to wearing a mask. However fine this may be, it soon becomes insipid and insufferable because it is lifeless.’ – Schopenhauer (PPii, §282)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘Nobody knows why we love to hear words that begin with the same letter, but we do … Any phrase, so long as it alliterates, is memorable and will be believed even if it’s a bunch of nonsense.’ – Mark Forsyth (EE)

line white philosophy writing style craft art

‘The more abstract a truth which one wishes to teach, the more one must entice the senses.’ – Nietzsche (notes to Lou Salomé, August 8th-24th 1882)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘Philosophy is an attempt to express the infinity of the universe in terms of the limitations of language.’ – A. N. Whitehead (Autobio.)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘We should discover faults of style in the writing of others in order to avoid them in our own.’ – Schopenhauer (PPii, §282)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘The same word should not be so often used in the same sentence or paragraph that it becomes tedious. … The same word should not be used in different senses in the same passage, unless attention is called to the difference.’ – R. Graves & A. Hodge (TROYS)

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‘A condition of good writing is that a man thinks rationally and sensibly.’  – Horace (Ars poetica, 309)

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‘The first rule of good style is that an author should have something to say … Just because such an author really has something to say, he will always express himself in the simplest and most straightforward manner. For his object is to awaken in the reader the very thought that he himself has, and no other.’ – Schopenhauer (PPii, §283)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘Even one’s thoughts one cannot reproduce entirely in words.’ – Nietzsche (GS§244)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘Theoretically, of course, one ought always to try for the best word. But practically, the habit of excessive care in word-selection frequently results in loss of spontaneity; and, still worse, the habit of always taking the best word too easily becomes the habit of always taking the most ornate word, the word most removed from ordinary speech.’ – Francis Thompson (Essay on Shelley)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun.’ – Mark Forsyth (EE)

line white philosophy writing style craft art

‘[Mediocre writers] choose the more abstract expression, whereas men on intellect select the more concrete because the latter expression brings things nearer to distinct perceptibility.’ – Schopenhauer (PPii, §283)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘I believe that every English poet should read the English classics, master the rules of grammar before he attempts to bend or break them, travel abroad, experience the horrors of sordid passion, and – if he is lucky enough – know the love of an honest woman.’ – Robert Graves

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘Do but care to express yourself in a plain, easy manner, in well-chosen significant and decent Terms, and to give a harmonious and pleasing Terms to your Periods; study to explain your Thoughts; and set them in the truest Light, labouring as much as possible, nor to leave them dark nor dark and intricate, cut clear and intelligible’. – Cervantes (Don Quixote, pref.)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘The dullness and tediousness of the writings of ordinary commonplace minds could be inferred even from the fact that , when they talk, they are always only half conscious and thus do not really understand the meaning of their own words; for with them such words are something acquired and picked up ready-made. They therefore put together whole phrases (phrases banal) rather than words.’ – Schopenhauer (PPii, §283)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions … A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea.’ – Edmund Burke 

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘It is nevertheless false for us to try to write exactly as we speak. On the contrary, every style of writing should bear a certain trace of kinship with the lapidary style that is the ancestor of them all. Therefore to write exactly as we speak is just as reprehensible as is the opposite fault of our trying to speak as we write; for this makes us pedantic and at the same time scarcely intelligible.’ – Schopenhauer (PPii, §283)

line white philosophy writing style craft art

‘Strategy on the part of the good writer of prose consists of choosing his means for stepping close to poetry but never stepping into it.’ – Nietzsche (notes to Lou Salomé, August 8th-24th 1882)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write: a man will turn over half a library in order to make one book.’ – Boswell (Life, vol.2, 344)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘[The writer] should react upon his metrical vocabulary to its beneficial expansion, by taking him outside his aristocratic circle of language, and keeping him in touch with the great commonalty, the proletariat of speech. For it is with words as with men: constant intermarriage within the limits of a patrician clan begets effete refinement; and to reinvigorate the stock, its veins must be replenished from hardy plebeian blood.’ – Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

line white philosophy writing style craft art

‘Whoever writes carelessly thereby confesses at the very outset that he himself does not attach any great value to his own ideas.’ – Schopenhauer (PPii, §285)

line white philosophy writing style craft art

‘We write only at the frontiers of our knowledge, at the border which separates our knowledge from our ignorance and transforms the one into the other. Only in this manner are we resolved to write.’ – Deleuze (DR, pref.)

line white philosophy writing style craft art

‘The leading principle of good style should be that a man can have only one clear idea at a time and, therefore, should not be expected to think of two or more things at one and the same moment. But this is expected of him by the writer who inserts these, as parenthetical clauses.’ – Schopenhauer (PPii, §287)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘[W]e can resist inflation, that debasement of language which is the saddest and most dangerous phenomenon … If moderately tuneful pop-songs are described as “fabulous”, what terms can be used to evaluate Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? The impressionable young … are being corrupted by the salesmen; they are being equipped with a battery of inflated words, being forced to evaluate alley-cat copulation in terms appropriate to the raptures of Tristan and Isolde. For the real defilers of language – the cynical inflators – a deep and dark hell is reserved.’  – Anthony Burgess (LMP)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘Similes are of great value in so far as they refer an unknown relation to a known. … Further, every case of mental grasp in the real sense ultimately consists in a seizing of relations … the furnishing of surprising and yet striking similes is evidence of profound intelligence.’ – Schopenhauer (PPii, §289)

line white philosophy writing style craft art‘Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Never use a long word where a short one will do. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. Never use the passive where you can use the active. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.’ – George Orwell

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‘It is right and even necessary that an increase of concepts should be accompanied by an addition to the vocabulary of a language. If, on the other hand, the latter occurs without the former, it is merely a sign of poorness.’ – Schopenhauer (PPii, §300)

‘[A]nyone can make a subject difficult; it takes an accomplished thinker to make a subject simple.’ – A. P. Martinich (PW, intro)

‘A philosopher once said, “Half of good philosophy is good grammar.”‘ – A. P. Martinich (PW, intro)

‘A particularly uncommon term will often distract a reader from the meaning of a sentence. It should therefore be avoided unless it is intrinsic to that meaning.’ – PS-H

‘Never use an uncommon term more than once in the same chapter.’ – PS-H

‘Adjectives can be emphatic rather than informative – e.g. “the brute axiom”.’ – PS-H

‘Of all writings I love only that which is written in blood. Write with blood: and you will discover that blood is spirit.’ – Nietzsche (Z, RW)

(Z: RW)

 

Marvel writer Warren Ellis interviews Peter Sjöstedt-H on writing methods, here.

 

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