John Henry Newman on Writing

Today marks the 212th birthday of John Henry Newman (1801–1890), a prolific Roman Catholic author. And while there’s much in his theology to trouble a reformed reader, he was a bright intellectual giant with a lot of wisdom on topics like education, church history, and literature (to name a few categories). I enjoy reading Newman mostly for his prose style, and while reading along I like to capture and collect his best advice to writers. Four of those excerpts I’ll post here, all taken from his book The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated (London, 1875):

Study and meditation being imperative, can it be denied that one of the most effectual means by which we are able to ascertain our understanding of a subject, to bring out our thoughts upon it, to clear our meaning, to enlarge our views of its relations to other subjects, and to develop it generally, is to write down carefully all we have to say about it? People indeed differ in matters of this kind, but I think that writing is a stimulus to the mental faculties, to the logical talent, to originality, to the power of illustration, to the arrangement of topics, second to none. Till a man begins to put down his thoughts about a subject on paper he will not ascertain what he knows and what he does not know; and still less will he be able to express what he does know. (422)

There are two sorts of eloquence, the one indeed scarce deserves the name of it, which consists chiefly in laboured and polished periods, an over-curious and artificial arrangement of figures, tinselled over with a gaudy embellishment of words, which glitter, but convey little or no light to the understanding. This kind of writing is for the most part much affected and admired by the people of weak judgment and vicious taste. … The other sort of eloquence is quite the reverse to this, and which may be said to be the true characteristic of the Holy Scriptures; where the excellence does not arise from a laboured and far-fetched elocution, but from a surprising mixture of simplicity and majesty, which is a double character, so difficult to be united that it is seldom to be met with in compositions merely human. (270)

A great author, Gentlemen, is not one who merely has a copia verborum, whether in prose or verse, and can, as it were, turn on at his will any number of splendid phrases and swelling sentences; but he is one who has something to say and knows how to say it. … He writes passionately, because he feels keenly; forcibly, because he conceives vividly; he sees too clearly to be vague; he is too serious to be otiose; he can analyze his subject, and therefore he is rich; he embraces it as a whole and in its parts, and therefore he is consistent; he has a firm hold of it, and therefore he is luminous. When his imagination wells up, it overflows in ornament; when his heart is touched, it thrills along his verse. He always has the right word for the right idea, and never a word too much. If he is brief, it is because few words suffice; when he is lavish of them, still each word has its mark, and aids, not embarrasses, the vigorous march of his elocution. He expresses what all feel, but all cannot say. (291-93)

Speech, and therefore literature, which is its permanent record, is essentially a personal work. It is not some production or result, attained by the partnership of several persons, or by machinery, or by any natural process, but in its very idea it proceeds, and must proceed, from some one given individual. Two persons cannot be the authors of the sounds which strike our ear; and, as they cannot be speaking one and the same speech, neither can they be writing one and the same lecture or discourse — which must certainly belong to some one person or other, and is the expression of that one person’s ideas and feelings — ideas and feelings personal to himself, though others may have parallel and similar ones — proper to himself, in the same sense as his voice, his air, his countenance, his carriage, and his action, are personal. (273-74)

One thought on “John Henry Newman on Writing

  1. Good stuff.

    Till a man begins to put down his thoughts about a subject on paper he will not ascertain what he knows and what he does not know; and still less will he be able to express what he does know.

    While this can’t be universally true, I’ve found it to be mainly true in my case.

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