Reading Good Writing

My friend Richard Smith and I have been discussing academic writing, he as an academic who writes and me as someone who edits people like him. Richard teaches classics at the Franciscan University. Here’s the latest exchange.


On the subject of good academic writing, Christopher B. Krebs, a classics professor at Stanford, concluded his review of Dying Every Day by James Romm, also a classicist, in the following way (WSJ, 4/19-20, C7):

Mr. Romm is a fluent writer, and “Dying Every Day” is a fast-paced read. Regrettably, this means that necessary complications are often left by the wayside or shunted to the endnotes. The absence of a proper discussion of Stoicism seems most problematic. There are also some noticeable inaccuracies. . . . An ancient historian by training who left his mark on classical studies early on with his “The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought” (1992), Mr. Romm is also an admired author. These two vocations are not necessarily at odds; but neither are they easily united. In “Dying Every Day” the latter carries the day over the former. I find this problematic; others, and maybe Mr. Romm himself, will beg to differ.

It emerges in the body of the review that Krebs judges Romm’s book to be sensationalistic in a Tacitean manner, and that this distracts from the stated aim of the book: to reconcile the Stoic Seneca and the statesman Seneca.

Two thoughts occur to me. First, the scholarly author has to be clear about his audience. Old series such as “Our Debt to Greece and Rome” contained books written for a non-specialist audience in attractive prose with brief endnotes and bibliography. Here is an example from John C. Rolfe’s Cicero and His Influence (1963):

As to his invective, it has already been said that Cicero was a man of strong feeling, intensely human, a good friend and a good hater. The amenities of Roman politics and of the Roman courts were not such as to oblige an orator to hold his personal feelings in check. The most outrageous charges against personal and political morality were freely made, and Cicero’s vituperation falls far short of Mark Antony

Such writing is possible today, and you have helped any number of scholars to achieve it. From what I can gather from Krebs’ review, Romm was not clear about his audience, and so wrote a book that serves neither audience, popular or academic.

Second, bad thinking is bad thinking, whether for a popular audience or for an academic audience. Mistakes in facts, failure to address essential background information, oversimplification, all can be found in all types of writing. However, what constitutes oversimplification, or for that matter over-elaboration, will differ with the audience. Thus, the elements of experience and practical judgement become part of the problem.

Which leads me to note something that I have observed in my Honors classes over the years: only those who have made a practice of reading good prose and poetry in their leisure time over their lifetime are really capable of becoming good writers. They have become habituated to good writing, they have formed good taste, they have developed practical wisdom. Such people would understand Cicero’s remarks about the joy of liberal studies, i.e., of reading good books:

For the rest of the things that give delight are not appropriate to all times or all ages or all places; but liberal studies nourish adolescence, make old age pleasant, adorn successful enterprises, offer solace and escape in adverse circumstances, give delight at home, do not get in the way in public life, stay awake at night with us, go abroad with us, rest in the country with us. (Pro Archia).


You are right about the need to read good writing, and right to add “in their leisure time,” which most people who make that point don’t do. I think it’s the reading for pleasure that makes the good writing effective in forming one’s own writing, maybe — this is a guess — because one is naturally receptive and at a deep level in the way one isn’t when reading for instruction. People who read good writing because they feel they ought to read it don’t learn nearly as much from it. At least that’s my theory.

My one modification is that the thing that separates the person who writes well from the writer is that the latter not only reads good writing for pleasure but reads it for the pleasure of the writing — which the first may do, of course, but I think not in the same way  — and on top of that consciously examines how the writer did what he did. It’s a small difference but an important one, at least from the writer’s point of view. It’s one of the sources of his particular skills, the skills peculiar to his craft, like being able to write in different voices and pull off certain look-ma-no-hands effects.

The difference is like that between the person who spends time in museums enjoying good and great painting who (I am describing myself) picks up a lot about the use of color, the way to compose scenes, and the like, but mostly absorbs it and can’t explain what he’s absorbed well to anyone else, and the painter who enjoys the paintings in the same way as the first person but also looks at the brush strokes and all the aspects of the craft the first person doesn’t even know about.

This way of looking at other people’s work in one’s craft is, I suspect, inborn. One finds oneself thinking “How did he do that?” when other people looking at the same painting or reading the same writer say just “Wow, that’s really good” or “I like that a lot.” They’re happy with that degree of insight because they’re not trying to do the same work. I had the experience as a youth, and a youth with very smart friends, of wanting to discuss in that way a book we all loved and watching my friend’s faces go slack.

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