Questions about Quintilian

Having now read Quintilian, I realize how much our contemporary practices of writing instruction are indebted to the classical rhetoricians whose practices Quintilian synthesized in his Institutes of Oratory, and also how much we could learn from them. One practice that Quintilian advocates seems completely opposite from our standard process writing pedagogy. Here’s a reminder of the gist of what he says (from pp. 404-5):

  • By writing carefully we can develop our ideas more deeply, which will provide us with a store to draw on as needed when speaking.
  • How we should write: “Let our pen be at first slow, provided that it be accurate. Let us search for what is best, and not allow ourselves to be readily pleased with whatever presents itself.” As we write we should judge our thoughts, attend to the organization, and weigh each word and its placement carefully as well as the rhythm of each phrase. Just as an archer pulls back the bowstring, so also should we go back as we’re writing to evaluate what we’ve written.
  • By this method we will write “very few verses in a day” as was Virgil’s practice.
  • Eventually we will be able to write faster, but we must first learn to write slowly: “By writing quickly we are not brought to write well, but that by writing well we are brought to write quickly.”
  • Some people are happy with everything they write and some with nothing.
  • Not only practice will help improve writing but also method. Instead of “looking at the ceiling, and trying to kindle our invention by muttering to ourselves wait[ing] for what may present itself” (doesn’t that sound familiar?), we should consider the subject, the occasion and purpose, and the audience.
  • It is better to write carefully at first than to produce a rough copy. (Quintilian calls a rough copy a silvam or forest because the trees in the forest are arranged in no particular order. Interesting.)

It seems that Quintilian would be in disagreement with our practice of having students talk about their ideas before writing and encouraging them to write quickly with little concern for structure or word choice, just to get the ideas down. So do you think that Quintilian just needs to read some of the research on writing process, or are his ideas worthy of consideration?

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