I love names that begin with the letter Q, and this essay includes two of them: the British man-of-letters Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and the Roman rhetorician (c. 35 – 100 AD) Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, better known as Quintilian. Sir Arthur often used Q as a pen name. I now refer to the Roman dude as “the Q-man.” Q and the Q man.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of a series of lectures delivered by Quiller-Couch to his students at Cambridge University in England, talks that have been anthologized in the book “On the Art of Writing.”
The most famous bit of Quiller-Couch advice, inspired by Samuel Johnson, is that writers must “murder your darlings,” that is, cut those phrases from a draft that seem the most self-consciously elegant. In other words: stop showing off.
In one lecture, Q consoles his students that, with a couple of powerful tools, “you can go a long way.” One such tool is emphatic word order, and to describe it Quiller-Couch invokes Quintilian, who wrote this sometime before his death around the year 100 AD:
“There is sometimes an extraordinary force in some particular word, which, if it be placed in no very conspicuous position in the middle part of a sentence, is likely to escape the attention of the hearer and to be obscured by the words surrounding it; but if it be put at the end of the sentence is urged upon the reader’s sense and imprinted on his mind.”
Quiller-Couch then offers his students an example of the Roman’s Q-tip, arguing that “The wages of sin is Death” is more powerful than “Death is the wages of sin.”
In my 2005 book “Writing Tools,” I encourage writers to “Order words for emphasis.” Little did I know that, almost two thousand years earlier, the same advice had been stated much more eloquently by an author I had never heard of!
If you follow the craft of vaudeville, you were called a vaudevillian. If I follow the craft of Quintilian, am I now a Quintilian-ian? I certainly hope so.
In an earlier essay, I mourned the shift of the word “rhetoric” from something powerful and purposeful toward something pejorative: fancy but empty discourse. I wished for a resurgence in rhetoric, the classical understanding of how the best speakers and writers communicate and persuade. Quintilian could be our patron.
On his behalf, I am about to do you a favor. Rather than send you to Quintilian’s most significant body of work, the “Institutio Oratoria,” I will offer you highlights from a translation edited by James J. Murphy. Here are Quintilian’s greatest hits, the ideas and strategies that make him as relevant now as he was in the days of the Roman Republic:
1. Let a text cool off before revision. In a letter to Trypho, an eminent bookseller in Rome, the Q-man writes that he prefers not to rush his works into print: “I allowed time for reconsidering them, in order that, when the ardor of invention has cooled, I might judge of them, on a more careful re-perusal, as a mere reader.”
I’ve heard the same advice from many writers, that even under deadline pressure they need to get away from the text so that it can cool off. The cooler the text, the more clear-eyed the revision.
2. Connect reading, writing and speaking. Quintilian started a school to train the leading citizens of Rome and is as well-known for his theories on education as he is for rhetoric. For example, “Not only is the art of writing combined with that of speaking, but correct reading also precedes illustration, and with all these is joined the exercise of judgment….”
Stanford scholar Shirley Brice Heath once asked me to describe the behaviors of the most literate Americans. I was stumped. She said, “They read, they write, and the know how to speak about reading and writing.” It follows that students must practice these behaviors every day, acts of literacy that will lead to good judgment.
3. Study writers of all kinds. Quintilian argues, “Nor is it sufficient to read the poets only; every class of writers must be studied, not simply for matter, but for words, which often receive their authority from writers.” Two millennia later, the British author David Lodge would put it this way: “That is why a novelist … must have a very keen ear for other people’s words … and why he cannot afford to cut himself off from the low, vulgar, debased language; why nothing linguistic is alien to him, from theological treatises to backs of cornflakes packets….”
4. Gain knowledge from all fields of study. “Nor can grammar be complete without a knowledge of music,” writes Quintilian since the grammarian has to speak of meter and rhythm.” He goes on to make a case for knowledge of astronomy and philosophy as well, thinking of grammar, not in a narrow sense, but as the strategic use of language in all disciplines. Forget Caesar. Hail, Grammar!
5. Strive for a reliable voice. “By speakers, as well as writers, there are certain rules to be observed. Language is based on reason, antiquity, authority and custom….Custom, however, is the surest preceptor in speaking: we must use phraseology, like money, which has the public stamp.” It seems that Quiintilian anticipates a kind of reconciliation between prescriptive and descriptive forms of grammar and usage. There are rules to follow, but it turns out to be common usage that lends the ring of truth.
We think of Latin as a dead language, but not for Quintilian. It was very much alive, enriched by new words, influenced by travel, conquest, technology, all aspects of Roman imperial culture. George Orwell made the same argument during World War II: that appeals for sacrifice by the English people should be made in the language of common Brits (he called it “demotic” speech), and not dressed in the finery and eduction of the upper classes and BBC.
6. Over the top is better than under the bottom. Writing by students should not be “dry and insipid,” nor should it be “wantonly adorned with far-fetched descriptions.” In other words, neither under-written nor over-written. But here is the key for Quintilian: “Both of these kinds of narratives are faulty, yet that which springs from poverty of mind is worse than that which comes from exuberance.” I take him to mean that it is easier to tone down the exuberance of the young over-writer than to light a fire under those who lack creativity and imagination.
7. Work toward being a fluent writer. “The sum of the whole matter, indeed, is this: that by writing quickly we are not brought to write well, but that by writing well we are brought to write quickly.” Do I see here the use of a rhetorical inversion known as a chiasmus, described in my earlier essay on rhetorical moves?
8. Use your craft for the common good. The sharpest arrow in Quintilian’s quiver is the notion that rhetoric requires the merger of craft and character, of method and purpose: the good citizen equipped to serve others with the power of the spoken and written word. This should be the idea that inspires journalists most of all.