Composition Disciplines the Mind

My Poetics & Progym III students this week read this gem in Elements of Style:

Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author. If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed and not at the expense of the work. Therefore, the first piece of advice is this: to achieve style, begin by affecting none — that is, place yourself in the background. A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge, and when this happens you will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts — which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as its principal reward. Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too. ~ Strunk and White, Elements of Style

This comes from the pithy piece of advice titled “Place Yourself in the Background.” So many modern composition programs attempt to force style requirements on students before they are ready, or worse, offer them no guidelines other than “express yourself!” But the time-tested classical method of imitation in composition allows students to truly forget themselves as they write. The personal style of an apprentice under a great master will come forth in time, but that style will be informed by the brilliance of the master. In the same way, the style, or voice, of our young scholars will come forth in due time, but it will reflect the great masters under whom they have apprenticed.

True also, that the discipline of writing informs the discipline of thinking. Alongside the disciplines of reading and discussion, writing “maketh a full . . . ready . . . exact man.” Dawson Trotman, founder of the Navigators, famously said:

Thoughts disentangle themselves when they pass through the lips and over the fingertips.

Poetics & Progym III is the upcoming Language Arts for Upper School course from Cottage Press, currently in testing at Providence Prep. In this course, students study the golden classic of composition, Elements of Style, for their Language Logic lessons, having completed Harvey’s Revised Grammar in Poetics & Progym II.

Schreibunterricht by Albert Anker, 1865

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