On Writing English


Should a man (or a woman) desire to practice the profession of a lawyer, he spends several years in a lawyer’s office, reads many books on legal subjects, and passes several examinations set by legal professionals. A like procedure obtains, should he desire to become a doctor, a civil engineer, an architect or a professor. Should he desire to be an artist, he must visit Paris and study under the best masters and from the best work of those who have become the acknowledged masters in painting and sculpture. But should he desire to become an author—he simply sits down and scribbles off a manuscript; then he arises with a look of satisfaction upon his countenance and mails the pen-production to the editor of some magazine, the name of which he knows by hearsay.

——John A. Cooper in The Canadian Magazine.

The Saving Grace

Let us not burn the universities—yet. After all, the damage they do might be worse…. Suppose Oxford had snared and disemboweled Shakespeare! Suppose Harvard had set its stamp upon Mark Twain!

——H. L. Mencken, Damn! A Book of Calumny

The Hydrostatic Paradox of Controversy

If a fellow attacked my opinions in print, would I reply? Not I. Do you think I don’t understand what our friend, the Professor, long ago called the hydrostatic paradox of controversy?

Don’t know what that means?—Well, I will tell you. You know, that, if you had a bent tube, one arm of which was the size of a pipe-stem, and the other big enough to hold the ocean, water would stand at the same height in one as in the other. Controversy equalizes fools and wise men in the same way,—and the fools know it.

——Oliver Wendell Holmes, Autocrat of the Breakfast Table.

A General Rule for Writers


Sydney Smith’s advice to a writer: As a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigor it will give your style.

Anthony Trollope Sells a Novel

Early in 1858, while I was writing Doctor Thorne, I was asked by the great men at the General Post Office to go to Egypt to make a treaty with the Pasha for the conveyance of our mails through that country by railway. There was a treaty in existence, but that had reference to the carriage of bags and boxes by camels from Alexandria to Suez. Since its date the railway had grown, and was now nearly completed, and a new treaty was wanted. So I came over from Dublin to London, on my road, and again went to work among the publishers. The other novel was not finished; but I thought I had now progressed far enough to arrange a sale while the work was still on the stocks. I went to Mr. Bentley and demanded 400,—for the copyright. He acceded, but came to me the next morning at the General Post Office to say that it could not be. He had gone to work at his figures after I had left him, and had found that 300 would be the outside value of the novel. I was intent upon the larger sum; and in furious haste,—for I had but an hour at my disposal,—I rushed to Chapman & Hall in Piccadilly, and said what I had to say to Mr. Edward Chapman in a quick torrent of words. They were the first of a great many words which have since been spoken by me in that back-shop. Looking at me as he might have done at a highway robber who had stopped him on Hounslow Heath, he said that he supposed he might as well do as I desired. I considered this to be a sale, and it was a sale. I remember that he held the poker in his hand all the time that I was with him;—but in truth, even though he had declined to buy the book, there would have been no danger.

——Autobiography, chapter 7.