Good Writing: a gift or an art?

T. H. Huxley
Symposium (1890?)

[11] I never had the fortune, [12] good or evil, to receive any guidance or instruction in the art of English composition. It is possibly for that reason I have always turned a deaf ear to the common advice to 'study good models,' to 'give your days and nights to the study of Addison,' and so on. Buffon said that a man's style is his very self, and in my judgment it ought to be so. The business of a young writer is not to ape Addison or Defoe, Hobbes or Gibbon, but to make his style himself, as they made their styles themselves. They were great writers, in the first place, because, by dint of learning and thinking, they had acquired clear and vivid conceptions about one or other of the many aspects of men or things. In the second place, because they took infinite pains to embody these conceptions in language exactly adapted to convey them to other minds. In the third place, because they possessed that purely artistic sense of rhythm and proportion which enabled them to add grace to force, and, while loyal to truth, make exactness subservient to beauty.

I cannot say that the principles I have laid down have been my own guides; they are [13] rather the result of a long experience. A considerable vein of indolence runs through my composition, and forty years ago there was nothing I disliked so much as the labour of writing. It was a task I desired to get over and done with as soon as possible. The result was such as might be expected.

If there is any merit in my English now, it is due to the fact that I have by degrees become awake to the importance of the three conditions of good writing which I have mentioned. I have learned to spare no labour upon the process of acquiring clear ideas–to think nothing of writing a page four or five times over if nothing less will bring the words which express all that I mean, and nothing more than I mean; and to regard rhetorical verbosity as the deadliest and most degrading of literary sins. Any one who possesses a tolerably clear head and a decent conscience should be able, if he will give himself the necessary trouble, thus to fulfill the first two conditions of a good style. The carrying out of the third depends neither on labour nor on honesty, but on that sense which is inborn in the literary artist, and can by no means be [14] given to him who has it not as his birthright. I should so much like to flatter myself that I am one of the 'well-born' in this respect that I dare not speculate on the subject. Vanity, like sleeping dogs, should be let lie.



1.   THH Publications
2.   Victorian Commentary
3.   20th Century Commentary

1.   Letter Index
2.   Illustration Index

Gratitude and Permissions

C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21.  Jungle Versus Garden