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Henry David Thoreau on the Art of Writing

Improve every opportunity to express yourself in writing as if it were your last

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Henry David Thoreau on the Art of Writing

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden and "Civil Disobedience," kept a journal for 24 years. Running to more than two million words and published in 14 volumes, Thoreau's journal is now recognized as one of the great achievements in American literature.

In addition to serving as both a sketch book for later essays and books and a record of his encounters with the natural world, Thoreau's journal was "a forum for meditation," according to H. Daniel Peck, "a private sphere in which his imagination could roam freely" (A Year in Thoreau's Journal, 1851). And one of the subjects that Thoreau frequently meditated on was the art of writing.

As these excerpts from the journal demonstrate, Thoreau's passionate reflections on writing may hold lessons for us all.

  • Get Moving!
    How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live! Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move my thoughts begin to flow--as if I had given vent to the stream at the lower end and consequently new fountains flowed into it at the upper. A thousand rills which have their rise in the sources of thought--burst forth and fertilize my brain. . . . Only while we are in action is the circulation perfect. The writing which consists with habitual sitting is mechanical wooden dull to read.
    (August 19, 1851)

  • Rules
    When I read some of the rules for speaking and writing the English language correctly--as that a sentence must never end with a particle--and perceive how implicitly even the learned obey, I think:
    Any fool can make a rule
    And every fool will mind it.
    (February 3, 1860)

  • A Well-Built Sentence
    I have often been astonished at the force and precision of style to which busy laboring men, unpracticed in writing, easily attain when they are required to make the effort. It seems as if their sincerity and plainness were the main thing to be taught in schools--and yet not in the schools, but in the fields, in actual service, I should say. The scholar not unfrequently envies the propriety and emphasis with which the farmer calls to his team, and confesses that if that lingo were written it would surpass his labored sentences. . . .

    A well-built sentence, in the rapidity and force with which it works, may be compared to a modern cornplanter, which furrows out, drops the seed, and covers it up at one moment.
    (January 3, 1842)

  • Nutty Sentences
    It is the fault of some excellent writers--[Thomas] De Quincey's first impressions on seeing London suggest it to me--that they express themselves with too great fullness and detail. They give the most faithful, natural, and lifelike account of their sensations, mental and physical, but they lack moderation and sententiousness. They do not affect us by an intellectual earnestness and a reserve of meaning, like a stutterer; they say all they mean. Their sentences are not concentrated and nutty. Sentences which suggest far more than they say, which have an atmosphere about them, which do not merely report an old, but make a new, impression; sentences which suggest as many things and are as durable as a Roman aqueduct: to frame these, that is the art of writing. Sentences which are expensive, towards which so many volumes, so much life went; which lie like boulders on the page, up and down or across; which contain the seed of other sentences, not mere repetition, but creation; which a man might sell his grounds and castles to build. If De Quincey had suggested each of his pages in a sentence and passed on, it would have been far more excellent writing. His style is nowhere kinked and knotted up into something hard and significant, which you could swallow like a diamond, without digesting.
    (August 22, 1851)

  • A Thousand Themes
    Write often, write upon a thousand themes, rather than long at a time, not trying to turn too many feeble somersets in the air--and so come down upon your head at last. Antaeus-like, be not long absent from the ground. Those sentences are good and well discharged which are like so many little resiliencies from the spring floor of our life--a distinct fruit and kernel itself, springing from terra firma. Let there be as many distinct plants as the soil and the light can sustain. Take as many bounds in a day as possible. Sentences uttered with your back to the wall. Those are the admirable bounds when the performer has lately touched the spring board.
    (November 12, 1851)

  • Writing for an Audience
    Those authors are successful who do not write down to others, but make their own taste and judgment their audience. By some strange infatuation we forget that we do not approve what yet we recommend to others. It is enough if I please myself with writing; I am sure of an audience.
    (March 24, 1842)

  • Revising
    In correcting my manuscripts, which I do with sufficient phlegm, I find that I invariably turn out much that is good along with the bad, which it is then impossible for me to distinguish--so much for keeping bad company; but after the lapse of time, having purified the main body and thus created a distinct standard for comparison, I can review the rejected sentences and easily detect those which deserve to be readmitted.
    (March 1, 1854)

  • Fresh Words for Fresh Thoughts
    Shall I not have words as fresh as my thoughts? Shall I use any other man's word? A genuine thought or feeling can find expression for itself, if it have to invent hieroglyphics. It has the universe for type-metal. It is for want of original thought that one man's style is like another's.
    (September 8, 1851)

  • Self-Expression
    Improve every opportunity to express yourself in writing as if it were your last.
    (December 17, 1851)

For further thoughts from Henry David Thoreau on the art of writing, read A Vigorous Prose Style, an excerpt from his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

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