Quintilian on Writing, Reading, Studying, Editing

(the statue is of Cicero, whom Quintilian thought the greatest rhetorician of his age).

Below is an excerpt from Book 10 and Chapter 3 of Quintilian’s Institutions of Oration. There are more than a few excellent thoughts here about studying, writing, editing, and reflecting…. and burning the midnight oil, an expression we owe to ancients like Quintilian. The translation is an ancient one, which I have done some updating to.


19. From my condemnation of carelessness in writing, it is clearly enough seen what I think of the luxury of dictation, for in the use of the pen, the hand of the writer, however rapid, as it cannot keep pace with the rapidity of his thoughts, allows them some respite. But he to whom we dictate urges us on, and we feel ashamed at times to hesitate, or stop, or alter, as if we were afraid to have a witness of our weakness. 20. Hence it happens that not only inelegant and casual expressions, but sometimes unsuitable ones, escape us, because our sole anxiety is to make our discourse connected. Our expressions, therefore, partake of neither the accuracy of the writer nor the animation of the speaker. If the person who takes down what is dictated proves a hindrance to us from slowness in writing or from inaccuracy in reading, the course of our thought is obstructed, and all the fire that had been conceived in our mind is dispelled by delay or sometimes by anger at the offender. 21. Besides, those gestures which accompany the stronger excitements of the mind and which, in some degree, rouse the imagination, such as waving of the hand, alteration of the features, turning from side to side, and all such acts as Persius satirizes, when he alludes to a negligent species of style (the writer, he says,

Nec pluteum iniquit, nec demorsos sapit ungues,

(Nor thumps his desk, nor tastes his bitten nails),

are utterly ridiculous except when we are alone. 22. In short, to mention once and for all the strongest argument against dictation, privacy is rendered impossible by it, and no one can doubt that a spot free from witnesses and the deepest possible silence are the most desirable for persons engaged in writing.

Yet we are not therefore necessarily to listen to those who think that groves and woods are the most proper places for study, because as the free and open sky, they say, and the beauty of sequestered spots, give elevation to the mind and a happy warmth to the imagination. 23. To me, assuredly, such retirement seems rather more conducive to pleasure than an incentive to literary exertion, for the very objects that delight us must, of necessity, divert our attention from the work which we designed to pursue. The mind cannot, in truth, attend effectually to many things at once, and in whatever direction it looks off, it must cease to contemplate what had been intended for its employment. 24. The pleasantness, therefore, of the woods, the streams gliding past, the breezes sporting among the branches of the trees, the songs of birds, and the very freedom of the extended prospect, draw off our attention to them, so that all such gratifications seem to me more adapted to relax the thoughts than to brace them.

25. Demosthenes acted more wisely: he secluded himself in a place where no voice could be heard and no prospect contemplated, that his eyes might not oblige his mind to attend to anything else besides his business. As for those who study by lamplight, therefore, let the silence of the night, the closed chamber, and a single light keep them, as it were, wholly in seclusion. 26. But in every kind of study, and especially in such nocturnal application, good health, and that which is the principal means of securing it, regularity of life, are necessary, since we devote the time appointed us by nature for sleep and the recruiting of our strength to the most intense labor. On this labor we must not bestow more time than what is too much for sleep and what will not leave too little for it, 27. for weariness hinders application to writing, and daylight, if we are free from other occupations, is abundantly sufficient for it. Necessity drives men engaged in business to read at night, yet study and burn the midnight oil, when we come to it fresh and vigorous, is the best kind of retirement.

28. But silence and seclusion, and entire freedom of mind, though in the highest degree desirable, cannot always fall to our lot. Therefore, we must not, if any noise disturbs us, immediately throw aside our books and deplore the day as lost, but we must strive against inconveniences and acquire such habits that our application may set all interruptions at defiance. For if we direct our attention, with our whole mental energy, to the work actually before us, nothing at all that strikes our eyes or ears will penetrate into the mind.

29. Does a casual train of thought often cause us not to see persons in our way and to wander from our road, and shall we not attain the same abstraction if we resolve to do so? We must not yield to excuses for idleness, for if we think that we must not study except when we are fresh, except when we are in good spirits, except when we are free from all other cares, we shall always have some reason for self-indulgence. 30. In the midst of crowds, therefore, on a journey, and even at festive meetings, let thought secure for herself privacy. Else what will be the result, when we shall have, in the midst of the forum, amid the hearing of so many causes, amid wranglings and casual outcries, to speak, perhaps on a sudden, in a continued harangue, if we cannot conceive the memoranda which we enter on our tablets, anywhere but in solitude? For this reason Demosthenes, though so great a lover of seclusion, used to accustom himself, by studying on the seashore, where the breakers dashed with the loudest noise, not to be disconcerted at the uproar of public assemblies.

31. Some lesser matters also (though nothing is little that relates to study) must not be left unnoticed, one of which is that we can write best on waxen tablets from which there is the greatest facility for erasing, unless, perchance, weakness of sight requires the use of papyrus. Though it assists the sight, papyrus causes delay and interrupts the current of thought from the frequent movement of the hand, backwards and forwards, while dipping the pen in the ink. 32. Next we may observe that in using either of these kinds of material, we should take care to leave some pages blank, on which we may have free scope for making any additions (since want of room sometimes causes a reluctance to correct, or, at least, what was written first makes a confused mixture with what is inserted). But I would not have the waxen tablets extravagantly broad, having found a youth, otherwise anxious to excel, make his compositions of too great a length because he used to measure them by the number of lines, a fault which, though it could not be corrected by repeated admonitions, was at last removed by altering the size of his tablets. 33. There should also be a portion of space left vacant on which may be noted down what frequently occurs out of order to persons who are writing, that is, in reference to other subjects than those which we have in hand. For excellent thoughts sometimes start into our minds which we cannot well insert in our pages and which it is not safe to delay noting down, because they sometimes escape us and sometimes, if we are anxious to keep them in memory, divert us from thinking of other things. Hence they will be properly deposited in a place for memoranda.

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