Composition (language)

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This book ... is the child of my brain
Murder your darlings
    —Arthur Quiller-Couch

The term composition (from Latin com- "with" and ponere "to place") as it refers to writing, can describe authors' decisions about, processes for designing, and sometimes the final product of, a composed linguistic work. In original use, it tended to describe practices concerning the development of oratorical performances, and eventually essays, narratives, or genres of imaginative literature, but since the mid-20th century emergence of the field of composition studies, its use has broadened to apply to any composed work: print or digital, alphanumeric or multimodal. As such, the composition of linguistic works goes beyond the exclusivity of written and oral documents to visual and digital arenas.


  • Idle reader: thou mayest believe me without any oath that I would this book, as it is the child of my brain, were the fairest, gayest, and cleverest that could be imagined. But I could not counteract Nature’s law that everything shall beget its like; and what, then, could this sterile, illtilled wit of mine beget but the story of a dry, shrivelled, whimsical offspring, full of thoughts of all sorts and such as never came into any other imagination—just what might be begotten in a prison, where every misery is lodged and every doleful sound makes its dwelling? Tranquillity, a cheerful retreat, pleasant fields, bright skies, murmuring brooks, peace of mind, these are the things that go far to make even the most barren muses fertile, and bring into the world births that fill it with wonder and delight.
  • Where’er you find ‘the cooling western breeze,’
    In the next line, it ‘whispers thro’ the trees;’
    If crystal streams ‘with pleasing murmurs creep,’
    The reader’s threaten’d (not in vain) with ‘sleep;’
    Then, at the last and only couplet, fraught
    With some unmeaning thing they call a thought,
    A needless Alexandrine ends the song,
    That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.
  • 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.

Classical and Foreign Quotations

Quotes reported in: W. F. H. King, ed., Classical and Foreign Quotations, 3rd ed. (1904), nos. 2451, 2453, 2630; 2646; 2500, 2674; 1231; 276, 2891; 1776, 3035. 1901; 2791; 603, 1591, 2370, 2454; 172, 880, 1421, 2431
  • Scribendi recte sapere est et principium et fons.
  • Of writing well be sure the secret lies
    In wisdom: therefore study to be wise.
  • Scribentem juvat ipse favor, minuitque laborem,
    Cumque suo crescens pectore fervet opus.
  • Favour assists and cheers the author’s art,
    And, as it grows, his work comes from the heart.
    • Ovid, Epistulae ex Ponto 3, 9, 21.
  • Studiis florentem ignobilis oti.
  • Indulging in the studies of inglorious leisure.
    • Virgil, Georgics 4, 564
    • Dryden’s Virgil (1697)—Affecting studies of less noisy praise.
    • Said of the author’s composition of his Georgics. The poet intimates that while Cæsar was pursuing his high destiny in arms, he (Virgil) was passing his time at Naples, in the pleasing but inglorious pursuit of his own peculiar studies.
Choosing a subject
  • Sumite materiam vestris, qui scribitis, æquam
    Viribus, et versate diu quid ferre recusent,
    Quid valeant humeri. Cui lecta potenter erit res,
    Nec facundia deseret hunc, nec lucidus ordo.
  • Good authors, take a brother bard’s advice:
    Ponder your subject o’er not once or twice,
    And oft and oft consider if the weight
    You hope to lift be, or be not too great.
    Let but our theme be equal to our powers,
    Choice language, clear arrangement, both are ours.
    • Horace, Ars Poetica 38 (tr. Conington)
Plan and arrangement
  • Servetur ad imum
    Qualis ab incepto processerit, et sibi constet.
  • See it be wrought on one consistent plan,
    And end the same creation it began.
    • Horace, Ars Poetica 126 (tr. Conington)
  • Tabula rasa.
  • A clean tablet, one from which the writing has been erased. A blank sheet of paper. A clean slate.
    • The mind, when unable to collect itself or remember any given circumstance, is termed metaphorically a tabula rasa in post-classical Latin, just as we say “a blank.” Among the Greeks the figure was common. Aristotle compares the mind to a “tablet on which nothing has been written,” ὥσπερ ἐν γραμματείῳ ᾧ μηθὲν ὑπάρχει ἐντελεχείᾳ γεγραμμένον (De Anima, 3, 4,11); and Plutarch (Placita Philosophorum, 4, 11) speaks of the soul at birth, ὥσπερ χάρτης ἐνεργῶν εἰς ἀπογραφήν, as “so much paper ready for writing on.”
What to put first
  • La dernière chose qu’on trouve en faisant un ouvrage, est de scavoir celle quil faut mettre la première.
  • In writing a book, the last thing that one learns is to know what to put first.
Thoughts and language
  • Ce que l'on concoit bien s’énonce clairement
    Et les mots pour le dire arrivent aisément.
  • A felicitous thought is as clearly exprest,
    And true words are not wanting in which it is drest.
  • Verbaque provisam rem non invita sequentur.
    • When you have well thought out your subject, words will come spontaneously.
    • Horace, Ars Poetica 311
Be interesting
  • Non satis est pulcra esse poemata; dulcia sunto,
    Et quocumque volent animum auditoris agunto.
  • Mere grace is not enough: a play should thrill
    The hearer’s soul, and move it at its will.
    • Horace, Ars Poetica 99 (tr. Conington)
  • Dans l’art d’intéresser consiste l’art d’écrire.
  • The art of writing consists in the art of interesting the reader.
  • Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci,
    Lectorem delectando pariterque monendo.
  • All votes he gains who can unite
    Profit with pleasure, and delight
    His reader’s fancy, all the time
    He gives instruction couched in rhyme.
Be natural
  • Τu nihil invita dices faciesve Minerva.
  • Beware of attempting anything (in literary composition) for which nature has not gifted you—i.e., against the grain.
    • Horace, Ars Poetica 385
    • Nihil decet invita, ut aiunt, Minerva, id est, adversante et repugnante natura. Cicero, de Officiis 1, 31, 110—Nothing that we write in the teeth of Minerva, as they say, i.e., against our natural capacities, will do us credit. Boileau, in imitation, begins his L’Art Poétique with
      C’est en vain qu’ au Parnasse un téméraire auteur
      Pense de l’art des vers attaindre la hauteur.
      Si son astre en naissant ne l’a formé poéte.
  • Dura Exerce imperia, et ramos compesce fluentes.
  •                   Exert a rigorous sway,
    And lop the too luxuriant boughs away.
    • Virgil, Georgics 2, 370 (tr. Dryden)
    • Very necessary advice to an inexperienced author.
  • Multa quidem scripsi: sed que vitiosa putavi
    Emendaturis ignibus ipse dedi.
  • I’ve written much; but what I thought to blame
    I threw, correctively, into the flame.
    • Ovid, Tristia 4, 10, 61
  • Quum relego, scripsisse pudet: quia plurima cerno
    Me quoque qui feci judice, digna lini.
  • When I read what I’ve written, I’m often abased;
    There’s so much in my judgment that should be erased.
    • Ovid, Epistulae ex Ponto 1, 5, 15
  • Scribimus, et scriptos absumimus igne libellos;
    Exitus est studii parva favilla mei.
  • I write, and throw into the flame what’s writ;
    A little ash is all that comes of it.
    • Ovid, Tristia 5, 12, 61
  • At qui legitimum cupiet fecisse poema,
    Cum tabulis animum censoris sumat honesti:
    Audebit, queecunque parum splendoris habebunt
    Et sine pondere erunt, et honore indigna ferentur,
    Verba movere loco.
  • But he who meditates a work of art,
    Oft as he writes will act the censor’s part:
    Is there a word wants nobleness and grace,
    Devoid of weight, nor worthy of high place?
    He bids it go though stiffly it decline,
    And cling and cling like suppliant to a shrine.
    • Horace, Epistles 2, 2, 109 (tr. Conington)
  • Hâtez-vous lentement; et sans perdre courage,
    Vingt fois sur le métier remettez votre ouvrage:
    Polissez-le sans cesse et le repolissez;
    Ajoutez quelquefois, et souvent effacez.
  • Hasten then, but full slowly: don’t lose heart of grace;
    And your work twenty times on the easel replace.
    Be continually polishing; polish again;
    Add something to this part; through that draw your pen.
  • Limæ labor ac mora.
  • The labour and tediousness of polishing (any work of art, poetry, painting, etc.) as though with a file.
  • Sæpe stilum vertas, iterum que digna legi sint
    Scripturus; neque te ut miretur turba labores,
    Contentus paucis lectoribus.
  • Oh yes! believe me, you must draw your pen
    Not once or twice, but o’er and o’er again
    Through what you’ve written, if you would entice
    The man that reads you once to read you twice,
    Not making popular applause your cue,
    But looking to fit audience, although few.
    • Horace, Satires 1, 10, 72 (tr. Conington)
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