The Young Man's Guide to the Harmonious
Development of Christian Character

by Harvey Newcomb, 1847


Writing, or composing, is one of the best exercises of the mind. It is, however, I am sorry to say, an exercise to which young people generally show a great aversion. One reason, perhaps, is, that, to write well, requires hard thinking. But I am inclined to think the chief reason is, that the difficulties of writing are magnified. There is, also, a want of wisdom in the choice of subjects. Themes are frequently selected for first efforts, which require deep, abstract thinking; and the mind not being able to grasp them, there is a lack of thought, which discourages new beginners. The first attempts should be made upon subjects that are easy and well understood; such as a well-studied portion of history, a well-known story, or a description of some familiar scene; the object being to clothe it in suitable language, and to make such reflections upon it as occur to the mind. Writing is but thinking on paper; and if you have any thoughts at all, you may commit them to writing.

Another fault in young beginners is, viewing composition as a task imposed on them by their teachers, and making it their chief object to cover a certain quantity of paper with writing; and so the sooner this task is discharged the better. But you must have a higher aim than this, or you will never be a good writer. Such efforts are positively injurious. They promote a careless, negligent habit of writing. One well-written composition, which costs days of hard study, is worth more, as a discipline of mind, than a hundred off-hand, careless productions. Indeed, one good, successful effort will greatly diminish every succeeding effort, and make writing easy. You will do well, then, first to select your subject some time before you write, and think it over and study it, and have your ideas arranged in your mind before you begin. Then write with care, selecting the best expressions, and clothing your thoughts in the best dress. Then carefully and repeatedly read it over, and correct it, studying every sentence, weighing every expression, and making every possible improvement. Then lay it aside awhile, and afterwards copy it, with such improvements as occur at the time. Then lay it aside, and after some days revise it again, and see what further improvements and corrections you can make, and copy it a second time. If you repeat this process half a dozen times, it will be all the better. Nor will the time you spend upon it be lost. One such composition will conquer all the difficulties in the way of writing; and every time you repeat such an effort, you will find your mind expanding, and your thoughts multiplying, so that, very soon, writing will become an easy and delightful exercise; and you will, at length, be able to make the first draught so nearly perfect that it will not need copying. But you never will make a good writer by off-hand, careless efforts.

Letter-writing, however, is a very different affair. Its beauty consists in its simplicity, ease, and freedom from formality. The best rule that can be given for letter-writing is, to imagine the person present whom you are addressing, and write just what you would say in conversation. All attempts at effort, in letter-writing, are out of place. The detail of particulars, such as your correspondent would be interested to know, and the expression of your own feelings, are the great excellences of this kind of writing. Nothing disappoints a person more than to receive a letter full of fine sentiments, or didactic matter, such as he might find in books, while the very information which he desired is left out, and perhaps an apology at the close for not giving the news, because the sheet is full. In a letter, we want information of the welfare of our friends, together with the warm gush of feeling which fills their hearts. These are the true excellences of epistolary writing.