Aristotle is my writing coach

Aristotle by Raphael (via Wikimedia Commons)
Aristotle by Raphael (via Wikimedia Commons)

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes:

“The beginning is more than half the task, and throws a flood of light on many aspects of the inquiry” (p. 17, Penguin Classics paperback edition).

This echoes something that Jon Franklin, my literary journalism professor at the University of Maryland (undoubtedly quoting someone equally famous as the philosopher of old) always said:

“The definition of writer’s block is not knowing what you are doing.”

Because I work as a writer, I interpret Aristotle’s statement in my own terms, and what he says is true. The hardest work is arranging a plan of attack, an illuminating principle, a beginning. Even if you don’t follow the classic “inverted triangle” of writing the most important facts first, the first sentences of any piece are Aristotle’s “flood of light.” If these sentences are no good, they leave the reader in the dark. If they cast the right light, the reader can sense they are in good hands.

It strikes me that good writers–particularly non-fiction writers, reporters, and essayists–fit Aristotle’s definition of the “sincere man”

“Such a man is to be commended. His inclination, if any, is toward understatement, because this seems to be in better taste, since exaggeration is wearisome” (p. 106, Penguin Classics paperback edition).

Exaggeration and hyperbole are everywhere, a function of much of the language we encounter being crafted by marketers and not artists. A worthwhile artist doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence with hollow claims, which are “wearisome” to sort through.

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