Schopenhauer’s Admonishment to Writers
Known for exemplifying philosophical pessimism, the work of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), the central text of which proposes that everything that we experience is the manifestation of a blind, insatiable and indivisible driving force, paints a stark picture of the human condition. Nevertheless, his adherents attest to the consoling power of his work, as much for its unvarnished perspective on the world as for the countermeasures that he provides for this state of affairs.
But why, as our title suggests, should we as communications professionals look to such a figure for advice on writing? The answer is because he is also known for his particularly lucid and clear writing style, which carries over into translations of his work, including his essays and aphorisms (for which he achieved popularity during his lifetime). In one of his essays, On Authorship and Style, he identifies common faults in the style of other authors of his day, especially those writing in his native German, so that we may avoid making the same mistakes.
Types of writers
In the essay, he outlines two kinds of authors: those who write for the subject's sake, and those who write for writing's sake. The latter invariably fall into the category of writing for money, according to Schopenhauer, and their writing is characterised by a superfluity of words in order to fill pages. This encapsulates the main themes of the essay: have something to say and be concise.
He also describes three other categories of writers: those who write ‘without thinking’, based on the works of others (this comes as pointed criticism to the author of this blog), those who think while they are writing, because they are compelled to write, and those who write after they have thought. The first two categories account for the vast majority of what is published in newspapers and books. Only the work produced by the third category, which is much rarer, is valuable he says:
“[…] the number of those authors who really and seriously think before they write is small, only extremely few of them think about the subject itself […] It is only the writer who takes the material on which he writes direct out of his own head that is worth reading.”
Matter and form
Schopenhauer then draws a distinction between two criteria for assessing the value of a work: matter and form. By matter, he means the subject that someone writes about, and form relates to what a person has thought about a subject.
It follows from this argument that people writing about a novel subject, such as a pioneering field of science or technology, have an advantage when it comes to making what they write valuable.
“Quite ordinary and shallow men are able to produce books of very great importance because of their matter, which was accessible to them alone,” Schopenhauer says.
On the other hand, artists are able to render ordinary and universal experiences compelling. That is to say: if you don’t have a novel subject, what you think and, therefore, what you write about a particular matter better be new and insightful.
“[…] it is on form that we are dependent, where the matter is accessible to everyone or very well known; and it is what has been thought about the matter that will give any value to the achievement; it will only be an eminent man who will be able to write anything that is worth reading. For the others will only think what is possible for every other man to think,” he writes.
Thinking and writing
Schopenhauer says that it isn’t necessary to know what someone has written about or what he or she thinks about a subject to get the measure of the author; it is enough to know how they have thought about it. Since a person’s style is a direct expression of this, it is possible to read a few pages of an author and know if it is worth continuing.
Consequently we see writers skirting around their subjects, going down endless corridors of thought, expressing themselves in abstract terms and writing copiously without saying a great deal, often because they have nothing to say and are writing for writing’s sake or because they wish to conceal ignorance of a subject. Out of a lack of confidence in their own ideas, they are cautious about writing as they think for fear of sounding too simple. As a result, they conceal their own style and imitate those of others, sometimes alternating between different ones.
Conversely, someone with something to say will express their thoughts as clearly and concisely as possible.
“An author of this kind will always express himself in the simplest and most direct manner, for the very reason that he really has something to say; because he wishes to awaken in the reader the same idea he has in his own mind and no other.”
Writing simply, therefore, is actually the preserve of authors who have thought deeply about a subject, and we, or at least our clients, should not be afraid to express our or their own style rather than aiming to imitate.
Simplicity in the sublime
Schopenhauer repeats his exhortation to authors to write simply multiple times, not just by saying things in as few words as possible, but by using simple, ordinary language.
“Men should use common words to say uncommon things, but they do the reverse,” he says.
PR practitioners searching for a title for their work may also consider Schopenhauer’s advice on this, which too recommends brevity, as well as summarising the benefit for the target audience and not being misleading:
“What the address is to a letter the title should be to a book—that is, its immediate aim should be to bring the book to that part of the public that will be interested in its contents. Therefore, the title should be effective, and since it is essentially short, it should be concise, laconic, pregnant, and if possible express the contents in a word. Therefore a title that is prolix, or means nothing at all, or that is indirect or ambiguous, is bad; so is one that is false and misleading: this last may prepare for the book the same fate as that which awaits a wrongly addressed letter.”
It seems Schopenhauer would have disapproved of clickbait for BuzzFeed-type articles.
Areas of agreement
The same habit for using overused metaphors and expressions that George Orwell berated in his essay Politics and the English Language, which we looked at here, was clearly prevalent over a century earlier, as Schopenhauer also criticises this as a substitute for thinking, with the effect of obscuring meaning or deliberately misleading:
“This accounts for that obviously characteristic want of clearly defined thought; in fact, they lack the die that stamps their thoughts, they have no clear thought of their own; in place of it we find an indefinite, obscure interweaving of words, current phrases, worn-out terms of speech, and fashionable expressions. The result is that their foggy kind of writing is like print that has been done with old type.”
Schopenhauer also distinguishes between objective and subjective styles, cautioning against the latter, which involves writers only having regard for whether they know what they mean to say, rather than troubling themselves to write so that their reader will fully grasp their meaning.
This might seem somewhat at odds with our advice drawn from Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, which is to consider how our writing may be made more effective by omitting information that it can be expected that the reader will infer, but this still entails thinking carefully about your audience and requires a deep knowledge of the subject.
Schopenhauer’s classification of writers shouldn’t discount the work of anyone who receives a fee for writing from being valuable. It does mean that what you write needs to be worth reading. It helps if you have something new to talk about. Fortunately, our clients, without exception, are leaders in their fields, in which they set the agenda for discussion. When you are writing about what has been written about before, it ought to build on what has already been said with original ideas, a different take, or a critique, which requires having thought about a subject before writing.
Arguably, Schopenhauer’s essay disregards the value of writing for educational purposes, which is not just to impart knowledge but to pique someone’s interest so that they may want to find out more about how learning about something might benefit them.
Ultimately his advice is about respecting your reader – writers of all kinds must always have in mind making the task of their readership as easy as possible to make them want to read what you’ve written:
“A writer must be sparing with the reader's time, concentration, and patience; in this way he makes him believe that what he has before him is worth his careful reading, and will repay the trouble he has spent upon it.”
This also involves care and patience on the part of the author by taking the time to express their thoughts and ideas in the clearest and most concise way and make the complex easy to understand. In doing so, they also demonstrate that their ideas are worthy of consideration.
“[…] nothing is easier than to write so that no one can understand; on the other hand, nothing is more difficult than to express learned ideas so that everyone must understand them.”
If you wish to read Arthur Schopenhauer’s essay On Authorship and Style in full, you can find it here.