Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Three Rules of Writing and Four Elements of Style: Timeless Advice from 1914
By Maria Popova
Between 1913 and 1914, British writer, critic, and literary tastemaker Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, better known under the pseudonym Q, delivered a series of twelve lectures on writing at Cambridge University, where he had been appointed to the King Edward VII Professorship of English Literature the previous year. (Fittingly, his rooms in the university’s First Court were known as the “Q-bicle.”) His inaugural lectures, spanning everything from style to ethics and concerned with making “appropriate, perspicuous, accurate, persuasive writing” a hallmark of a worthy literary education, were eventually published as On the Art of Writing (public library) — a compendium of some of the most lucid and timeless advice on writing ever put into words, also available as a free ebook, and a fine addition to famous authors’ best advice on the craft.
Playing off a phrase from Francis Bacon’s famous essay on studies — “reading maketh a full man” — Quiller-Couch begins by considering the value of reading to young minds:
Literature is a nurse of noble natures, and right reading makes a full man in a sense even better than Bacon’s; not replete, but complete rather, to the pattern for which Heaven designed him. In this conviction, in this hope, public spirited men endow Chairs in our Universities, sure that Literature is a good thing if only we can bring it to operate on young minds.
Acknowledging that “some doubt does lurk in the public mind” as to whether writing and the art of literature “can, in any ordinary sense, be taught,” Quiller-Couch counters:
That the study of English Literature can be promoted in young minds by an elder one, that their zeal may be encouraged, their tastes directed, their vision cleared, quickened, enlarged — this, I take it, no man of experience will deny.
He goes on to outline three guiding principles that make this quickening and enlargement of vision possible.
1. SURRENDER TO THE WORK ABSOLUTELY
In studying any work of genius we should begin by taking it absolutely; that is to say, with minds intent on discovering just what the author’s mind intended; this being at once the obvious approach to its meaning … and the merest duty of politeness we owe to the great man addressing us. We should lay our minds open to what he wishes to tell, and if what he has to tell be noble and high and beautiful, we should surrender and let soak our minds in it.
With a wink to Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism about education and knowledge, Quiller-Couch makes an aside of remarkable prescience in our present age of lazy and indignant quasi-opinions:
There is no surer sign of intellectual ill-breeding than to speak, even to feel, slightingly of any knowledge oneself does not happen to possess… That understanding of literature which we desire in our … gracefully-minded youth will include knowledge in varying degree, yet is itself something distinct from knowledge.
Returning to his first principle of absolute surrender to a work of art, Quiller-Couch cites Emerson’s famous remark that great writers make us “feel most at home” and, lamenting “the memorizing of much that passes for knowledge,” further considers the true value of a literary education:
As we dwell here between two mysteries, of a soul within and an ordered Universe without, so among us are granted to dwell certain men of more delicate intellectual fibre than their fellows — men whose minds have, as it were, filaments to intercept, apprehend, conduct, translate home to us stray messages between these two mysteries, as modern telegraphy has learnt to search out, snatch, gather home human messages astray over waste waters of the Ocean.
If, then, the ordinary man be done this service by the poet, that (as Dr Johnson defines it) ‘he feels what he remembers to have felt before, but he feels it with a great increase of sensibility‘; or even if, though the message be unfamiliar, it suggests to us, in Wordsworth’s phrase, to ‘feel that we are greater than we know,’ I submit that we respond to it less by anything that usually passes for knowledge, than by an improvement of sensibility, a tuning up of the mind to the poet’s pitch; so that the man we are proud to send forth from our Schools will be remarkable less for something he can take out of his wallet and exhibit for knowledge, than for being something, and that ‘something,’ a man of unmistakable intellectual breeding, whose trained judgment we can trust to choose the better and reject the worse.
2. BREAK FREE OF LIMITING RULES AND DOGMAS
In a sentiment that John Steinbeck would come to echo decades later in the disclaimer to his six rules of writing, Quiller-Couch turns to the second of his three principles — the idea that even though style, “that curiously personal thing,” can’t be “readily brought to rule-of-thumb tests,” we ought to study the elements of its most sublime manifestations without subscribing to any dogmatic rules about those elements. He writes:
[Even though style may be] so easily be suspected of evading all tests, of being mere dilettantism… I rebuke this suspicion by constantly aiming at the concrete, at the study of such definite beauties as we can see presented in print under our eyes; always seeking the author’s intention, but eschewing, for the present at any rate, all general definitions and theories, through the sieve of which the particular achievement of genius is so apt to slip… Definitions, formulae (some would add, creeds) have their use in any society in that they restrain the ordinary unintellectual man from making himself a public nuisance with his private opinions. But they go a very little way in helping the man who has a real sense of prose or verse. In other words, they are good discipline for some thyrsus-bearers, but the initiated have little use for them.
With this, he arrives at the heart of literature:
Literature is not an abstract Science, to which exact definitions can be applied. It is an Art rather, the success of which depends on personal persuasiveness, on the author’s skill to give as on ours to receive.
3. HONOR THE ALIVENESS OF LITERATURE AND LANGUAGE
Quiller-Couch’s third and final principle builds on the second. Admonishing against the human tendency to “treat all innovation as suspect” — a fear frequently channeled through dogmatic rules about right and wrong, and certainly something central to the techno-alarmism to which every age is prone — points to “the courage of the young” as the hopeful antidote to this tendency and writes:
As Literature is an Art and … not to be pondered only, but practiced, so ours is a living language and therefore to be kept alive, supple, active in all honorable use.
In a sentiment particularly prescient in the context of today’s seemingly unending death tolls for the novel, he adds:
I would warn you against despising any form of art which is alive and pliant in the hands of men… You may or may not deplore the forms that literature is choosing now-a-days; but there is no gainsaying that it is still very much alive… Believe, and be glad that Literature and the English tongue are both alive.
The celebration and preservation of that aliveness, he argues, is our shared responsibility:
Carlyle, in his explosive way, once demanded of his countrymen, ‘Shakespeare or India? If you had to surrender one to retain the other, which would you choose?’ … In English Literature, which, like India, is still in the making, you have at once an Empire and an Emprise. In that alone you have inherited something greater than Sparta. Let us strive, each in his little way, to adorn it.
English Literature being (as we agreed) an Art, with a living and therefore improvable language for its medium or vehicle, a part — and no small part — of our business is to practice it.
In another lecture, Quiller-Couch considers the best practices of this living art:
The perfection of style is variety in unity, freedom, ease, clearness, the power of saying anything, and of striking any note in the scale of human feelings, without impropriety… Your gamut needs not to be very wide, to begin with. The point is that within it you learn to play becomingly.
Returning to his original ideal of “appropriate, perspicuous, accurate, persuasive writing,” he points out that the desire for Appropriateness is so obvious that it warrants no explanation and turns to the other three epithets, beginning with Perspicuity:
I shall waste no words on the need of this: since the first aim of speech is to be understood. The more clearly you write the more easily and surely you will be understood… Further … the more clearly you write the more clearly you will understand yourself.
He writes of Accuracy:
After all, what are the chief differentiae between man and the brute creation but that he clothes himself, that he cooks his food, that he uses articulate speech? Let us cherish and improve all these distinctions.
By perusing “these twin questions of perspicuity and accuracy,” Quiller-Couch argues, “we may almost reach the philosophic kernel of good writing.” And yet his final ideal, Persuasiveness, is also the one that binds the parts together into the potent totality of great writing:
Persuasiveness … embraces the whole — not only the qualities of propriety, perspicuity, accuracy … but many another, such as harmony, order, sublimity, beauty of diction; all in short that — writing being an art, not a science, and therefore so personal a thing — may be summed up under the word Charm. Who, at any rate, does not seek after Persuasion? It is the aim of all the arts and, I suppose, of all exposition of the sciences; nay, of all useful exchange of converse in our daily life. It is what Velasquez attempts in a picture, Euclid in a proposition, the Prime Minister at the Treasury box, the journalist in a leading article, our Vicar in his sermon. Persuasion, as Matthew Arnold once said, is the only true intellectual process. The mere cult of it occupied many of the best intellects of the ancients, such as Longinus and Quintilian, whose writings have been preserved to us just because they were prized. Nor can I imagine an earthly gift more covetable by you … than that of persuading your fellows to listen to your views and attend to what you have at heart.
But persuasion, Quiller-Couch suggests, is an art rather than an act and it cannot be mastered before coming to terms with its very artness:
Persuasion — the highest form of persuasion at any rate — cannot be achieved without a sense of beauty.
The sense of beauty he speaks of, however, is a disposition of the spirit rather than a concern with superficial ornamentation. In fact, in his final lecture — the source of the oft-cited “murder your darlings” aphorism, often misattributed to William Faulkner — Quiller-Couch admonishes against mistaking the beauty of style for mere decoration:
Style … is not — can never be — extraneous Ornament… If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
A century later, all twelve lectures in On the Art of Writing remain absolutely indispensable. Complement them with this evolving library of notable wisdom on the craft, including George Orwell on the four questions a great writer must ask herself, Zadie Smith on the two psychologies for writing, Vladimir Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller, Elmore Leonard’s ten tips on writing, Nietzsche’s ten rules, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, Henry Miller’s eleven commandments, and Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing with style.
Published October 3, 2014