5 Writing Tips from Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson never wrote a how-to book, but he could have.

Posted Sep 07, 2009

Don't say too much; don't say too little. That's what it takes to be a very good writer (That's #1). A hundred or so years ago, Emerson figured that out. Though he didn't publish an advice book for writers, if he had it would probably have contained a lot of what award-winning author Robert D. Richardson put into First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process. But why would you care what Emerson thought about reading and writing?

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) [was] the preeminent lecturer, essayist and philosopher of 19th century America. Emerson was a key figure in the "New England Renaissance," as an author and also through association with the Transcendental Club, the Dial and the many writers--notably Thoreau...--who gathered around him. [This bio tidbit is from this site.]

Emerson depended on keeping what were then called commonplace books in which he recorded vivid images and phrases, as well as high points from his life and his reading (That's #2). His daily reading, in fact, was critical to his creativity and productivity. (He once recommended a person read for five hours a day - That's #3).

"THROW YOUR BODY AT THE MARK"

In only about 85 pages, author Richardson captures Emerson's thoughts and writings on this single (but not simple) topic. He singles out what you can assume are the best examples of the Concord Sage's idiosyncratic written expression about creativity, such as this gem (#4):

The best single bit of practical advice about writing that Emerson ever gave --the best because it is a cry from the heart, because it focuses on attitude, not aptitude, and because it is as stirring as a rebel yell--is this: "The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent."

Emerson was a poet, too, and although he wasn't a novelist, he understood one of the keys to success in any kind of writing (#5):

If you desire to arrest attention, to surprise, do not give me the facts in the order of cause and effect, but drop one or two links in the chain, and give me a cause and an effect two or three times removed.

In its brevity, Richardson's book contains much wit. You can also read about Emerson in Richardson's acclaimed biography, Emerson: The Mind on Fire.

[The photo at the top of this post shows Emerson, circa 1848, with the manuscript of his poem "Monadnoc," circa 1845, from the Houghton Library's collection at Harvard (staff photo by Rose Lincoln)].

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