Quotes on Writing
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51. Independent Study/Efforts; Writing
"Human experience, which is constantly contradicting theory, is the great test of truth. A system, built upon the discoveries of a great many minds, is always of more strength, than what is produced by the mere workings of any one mind, which, of itself, can do very little. There is not so poor a book in the world that would not be a prodigious effort were it wrought out entirely by a single mind, without the aid of prior investigators."
Boswell: Life
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111. Writing
"When a man writes from his own mind, he writes very rapidly. The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book."
Boswell: Life
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203. Writing
"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."
Boswell: Life
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215. Writing
Sir Joshua said, what I have often thought, that he wondered to find so much good writing employed in them [critical reviews], when the authours were to remain unknown, and so could not have the motive of fame. Johnson: "Nay, Sir, those who write in them, write well, in order to be paid well."
Boswell: Life
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241. O.J. Simpson Books :-); Publishing; Writing
Johnson was by no means of opinion, that every man of a learned profession should consider it as incumbent upon him, or as necessary to his credit, to appear as an author. When in the ardour of ambition of literary fame, I regretted to him one day that an eminent Judge had nothing of it, and therefore would leave no perpetual monument of himself to posterity. "Alas, Sir, (said Johnson,) what a mass of confusion should we have, if every Bishop, and every Judge, every Lawyer, Physician and Divine, were to write books."
Boswell: Life
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283. Writing
I mentioned the very liberal payment which had been received for reviewing; and, as evidence of this, that it had been proved in a trial, that Dr. Shebbeare had received six guineas a sheet for that kind of literary labour. Johnson: "Sir, he might get six guineas for a particular sheet, but not communibus sheetibus.*" Boswell: "Pray, Sir, by a sheet of review is it meant that it shall be all of the writer's own composition, or are extracts, made from the book reviewed, deducted?" Johnson: "No, Sir: it is a sheet, no matter of what." Boswell: "I think that is not reasonable." Johnson: "Yes, Sir, it is. A man will more easily write a sheet all his own, than read an octavo volume to get extracts."
*Communibus sheetibus: for common/average sheets. Boswell: Life
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325. Anecdotes; Writing
"I love anecdotes. I fancy mankind may come, in time, to write all aphoristically, except in narrative; grow weary of preparation, and connection, and illustration, and all those arts by which a big book is made. If a man is to wait till he weaves anecdotes into a system, we may be long in getting them, and get but a few, in comparison of what we might get."
Boswell: Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides
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326. Perseverance; Writing
"A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it."
Boswell: Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides
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332. Accuracy; Writing
"I advised Chambers, and would advise every young man beginning to compose, to do it as fast as he can, to get a habit of having his mind to start promptly; it is so much more difficult to improve in speed than in accuracy."
Boswell: Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides
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505. Style; Writing
"The task of an author is, either to teach what is not known, or to recommend known truths by his manner of adorning them; either to let new light in upon the mind, and open new scenes to the prospect, or to vary the dress and situation of common objects, so as to give them fresh grace and more powerful attractions, to spread such flowers over the regions through which the intellect has already made its progress, as may tempt it to return, and take a second view of things hastily passed over, or negligently regarded."
Johnson: Rambler #3 (March 27, 1750)
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507. Moral Instruction; Writing
"It is justly considered as the greatest excellency of art to imitate nature; but it is necessary to distinguish those parts of nature which are most proper for imitation: greater care is still required in representing life, which is so often discoloured by passion or deformed by wickedness. If the world be promiscuously described, I cannot see of what use it can be to read the account; or why it may not be as safe to turn the eye immediately upon mankind, as upon a mirror which shows all that presents itself without discrimination."
Johnson: Rambler #4 (March 31, 1750)
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536. Editing; Writing
"I would say to Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils:'Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.'"
Boswell: Life of Johnson
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541. Moral Instruction; Writing
"Among the many inconsistencies which folly produces or infirmity suffers in the human mind, there has often been observed a manifest and striking contrariety between the life of an author and his writings... Those whom the appearance of virtue or the evidence of genius has tempted to a nearer knowledge of the writer, in whose performances they may be found, have indeed had frequent reason to repent their curiosity; the bubble that sparkled before them has become common water at the touch; the phantom of perfection has vanished when they wished to press it to their bosom."
Johnson: Rambler #14 (May 5, 1750)
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542. Moral Instruction; Writing
"It is not difficult to conceive, however, that for many reasons a man writes much better than he lives. For without entering into refined speculations, it may be shown much easier to design than to perform. A man proposes his schemes of life in a state of abstraction and disengagement, exempt from the enticements of hope, the solicitations of affection, the importunities of appetite, or the depressions of fear; and is in the same state with him that teaches upon land the art of navigation, to whom the sea is always smooth, and the wind always prosperous."
Johnson: Rambler #14 (May 5, 1750)
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544. Moral Instruction; Virtue; Writing
"It is the condition of our present state to see more than we can attain; the exactest vigilance and caution can never maintain a single day of unmingled innocence... It is, however, necessary for the idea of perfection to be proposed, that we may have some object to which our endeavours are to be directed; and he that is most deficient in the duties of life makes some atonement for his faults if he warns others against his own failings, and hinders, by the salubrity of his admonitions, the contagion of his example."
Johnson: Rambler #14 (May 5, 1750)
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545. Conversation; Writing
"A transition from an author's book to his conversation is too often like an entrance into a large city, after a distant prospect. Remotely, we see nothing but spires of temples and turrets of palaces, and imagine it the residence of splendour, grandeur, and magnificence; but when we have passed the gates, we find it perplexed with narrow passages, disgraced with despicable cottages, embarrassed with obstructions, and clouded with smoke."
Johnson: Rambler #14 (May 5, 1750)
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561. Style; Writing
"It is much easier not to write like a man than to write like a woman."
Johnson: Rambler #20 (May 26, 1750)
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569. Writing
"A successful author is equally in danger of the diminution of his fame, whether he continues or ceases to write. The regard of the public is not to be kept but by tribute, and the remembrance of past service will quickly languish unless successive performances frequently revive it. Yet in every new attempt there is new hazard, and there are few who do not, at some unlucky time, injure their own characters by attempting to enlarge them."
Johnson: Rambler #21 (May 29, 1750)
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571. Vanity; Writing
"We are blinded in examining our own labours by innumerable prejudices. Our juvenile compositions please us, because they bring to our minds the remembrance of youth; our later performances we are ready to esteem, because we are unwilling to think that we made no improvement; what flows easily from the pen charms us, because we read with pleasure that which flatters our opinion of our own powers; what was composed with great struggles of the mind we do not easily reject, because we cannot bear that so much labour should be fruitless. But the reader has none of these prepossessions, and wonders that the authour is so unlike himself, without considering that the same soil will, with different culture, afford different products."
Johnson: Rambler #21 (May 29, 1750)
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573. Consultation of Others; Self-Confidence; Writing
"Consultation and compliance can conduce little to the perfection of any literary performance; for whoever is so doubtful of his own abilities as to encourage the remarks of others, will find himself every day embarrassed with new difficulties, and will harass his mind, in vain, with the hopeless labour of uniting heterogeneous ideas, digesting independent hints, and collecting into one point the several rays of borrowed light, emitted often with contrary directions."
Johnson: Rambler #23 (June 5, 1750)
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685. History; Pleasure; Reading; Writing
"It is not easy for the most artful writer to give us an interest in happiness or misery, which we think ourselves never likely to feel, and with which we have never been acquainted. Histories of the downfalls of kingdoms and revolutions of empires are read with great tranquillity; the imperial tragedy pleases common auditors only by its pomp of ornaments and grandeur of ideas; and the man whose faculties have been engrossed by business, and whose heart never fluttered but at the rise or fall of the stocks, wonders how the attention can be seized or the affection agitated by a tale of love."
Johnson: Rambler #60 (October 13, 1750)
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750. Writing
On the task of editing Shakespeare, which Hawkins told Johnson should be intrinsically rewarding: "I look upon this as I did upon the Dictionary: it is all work, and my inducement to it is not love or desire of fame, but the want of money, which is the only motive to writing that I know of."
Sir John Hawkins: The Life Of Samuel Johnson
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757. Vanity; Writing
"A writer who obtains his full purpose loses himself in his own lustre."
Johnson: Dryden (Lives of the Poets)
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759. Style; Writing
"He who writes much will not easily escape a manner, such a recurrence of particular modes as may be easily noted."
Johnson: Dryden (Lives of the Poets)
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760. Style; Writing
"Words too familiar, or too remote, defeat the purpose of a poet. From those sounds which we hear on small or on coarse occasions, we do not easily receive strong impressions, or delightful images; and words to which we are nearly strangers, whenever they occur, draw that attention on themselves which they should transmit to other things."
Johnson: Dryden (Lives of the Poets)
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763. Editing; Quality; Writing
"In an occasional performance no height of excellence can be expected from any mind, however fertile in itself, and however stored with acquisitions. He whose work is general and arbitrary has the choice of his matter, and takes that which his inclination and his studies have best qualified him to display and decorate. He is at liberty to delay his publication till he has satisfied his friends and himself; till he has reformed his first thoughts by subsequent examination; and polished away those faults which the precipitance of ardent composition is likely to leave behind it. Virgil is related to have poured out a great number of lines in the morning, and to have passed the day in reducing them to fewer."
Johnson: Dryden (Lives of the Poets)
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764. Originality; Writing
"The occasional poet is circumscribed by the narrowness of his subject. Whatever can happen to man has happened so often, that little remains for fancy or invention. We have been all born; we have most of us been married; and so many have died before us, that our deaths can supply but few materials for a poet. In the fate of princes the public has an interest; and what happens to them of good or evil, the poets have always considered as business for the Muse. But after so many inauguratory gratulations, nuptial hymns, and funeral dirges, he must be highly favoured by nature, or by fortune, who says anything not said before. Even war and conquest, however splendid, suggest no new images; the triumphal chariot of a victorious monarch can be decked only with those ornaments that have graced his predecessors."
Johnson: Dryden (Lives of the Poets)
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765. Poetry; Writing
"New arts [topics] are long in the world before poets describe them; for they borrow everything from their predecessors, and commonly derive very little from nature or from life."
Johnson: Dryden (Lives of the Poets)
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767. Parallels; Writing
"Allegories drawn to great length will always break."
Johnson: Dryden (Lives of the Poets)
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771. Reading; Writing
"Works of imagination excel by their allurement and delight; by their power of attracting and detaining the attention. That book is good in vain which the reader throws away. He only is the master who keeps the mind in pleasing captivity; whose pages are perused with eagerness, and in hope of new pleasure are perused again; and whose conclusion is perceived with an eye of sorrow, such as the traveller casts upon departing day."
Johnson: Dryden (Lives of the Poets)
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822. Vanity; Writing
"Every man is of importance to himself, and, therefore, in his own opinion, to others; and, supposing the world already acquainted with his pleasures and his pains, is perhaps the first to publish injuries or misfortunes which had never been known unless related by himself, and at which those that hear them will only laugh, for no man sympathises with the sorrows of vanity."
Johnson: Pope (Lives of the Poets)
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825. Style; Writing
"It is indeed not easy to distinguish affectation from habit; he that has once studiously developed a style, rarely writes afterwards with complete ease."
Johnson: Pope (Lives of the Poets)
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851. Writing
"In this work [Rape of the Lock] are exhibited, in a very high degree, the two most engaging powers of an author. New things are made familiar, and familiar things are made new."
Johnson: Pope (Lives of the Poets)
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856. Criticism; Writing
"The purpose of a writer is to be read, and the criticism which would destroy the power of pleasing must be blown aside."
Johnson: Pope (Lives of the Poets)
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869. Influence; Writing
"The wickedness of a loose or profane author is more atrocious than that of a giddy libertine or drunken ravisher, not only because it extends its effects wider, as a pestilence that taints the air is more destructive than poison infused in a draught, but because it is committed with cool deliberation."
Johnson: Rambler #77 (December 11, 1750)
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919. Actors/Acting; Criticism; Writing
"The art of the writer, like that of the player, is attained by slow degrees. The power of distinguishing and discriminating comick characters, or of filling tragedy with poetical images, must be the gift of nature, which no instruction nor labour can supply; but the art of dramatick disposition, the contexture of the scenes, the involution of the plot, the expedients of suspension, and the strategems of surprise, are to be learned by practice; and it is cruel to discourage a poet for ever, because he has not from genius what only experience can bestow."
Johnson: Idler #25 (October 7, 1758)
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948. Publishing; Reading; Writing
"One of the amusements of idleness is reading without the fatigue of close attention; and the world therefore swarms with writers whose wish is not to be studied, but to be read."
Johnson: Idler #30 (November 11, 1758)
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950. The Press; Writing
"To write news in its perfection requires such a combination of qualities, that a man completely fitted for the task is not always to be found. In Sir Henry Wotton's jocular definition, 'An Ambassador is said to be a man of virtue sent abroad to tell lies for the advantage of his country; a news-writer is a man without virtue, who lies at home for his own profit.' To these compositions is required neither genius nor knowledge, neither industry nor sprightliness; but contempt of shame and indifference to truth are absolutely necessary. He who by a long familiarity with infamy has obtained these qualities, may confidently tell today what he intends to contradict to-morrow; he may affirm fearlessly what he knows that he shall be obliged to recant, and may write letters from Amsterdam or Dresden to himself."
Johnson: Idler #30 (November 11, 1758)
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954. Writing
"There seems to be a strange affectation in authors of appearing to have done everything by chance."
Johnson: Congreve (Lives of the Poets)
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986. Reading; Style; Writing
"Too much nicety of detail disgusts the greatest part of readers, and to throw a multitude of particulars under general heads, and lay down rules of extensive comprehension, is to common understandings of little use."
Johnson: Rambler #90 (January 26, 1751)
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995. Criticism; Writing
"He that writes may be considered as a kind of general challenger, whom every one has a right to attack; since he quits the common rank of life, steps forward beyond the lists, and offers his merit to the public judgement. To commence author is to claim praise, and no man can justly aspire to honour, but at the hazard of disgrace."
Johnson: Rambler #93 (February 5, 1751)
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996. Criticism; Influence; Writing
"The faults of a writer of acknowledged excellence are more dangerous, because the influence of his example is more extensive; and the interest of learning requires that they should be discovered and stigmatized, before they have the sanction of antiquity conferred upon them, and become precedents of indisputable authority."
Johnson: Rambler #93 (February 5, 1751)
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998. Accuracy; Writing
"In all pointed sentences, some degree of accuracy must be sacrificed to conciseness."
Johnson: The Bravery of the English Common Soldier
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1,030. Blindness; Writing
"Invention is almost the only literary labour which blindness cannot obstruct."
Johnson: Milton (Lives of the Poets)
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1,034. Criticism; Writing
"Many causes may vitiate a writer's judgement of his own works. On that which has cost him much labour he sets a high value, because he is unwilling to think that he has been diligent in vain: what has been produced without toilsome efforts is considered with delight as a proof of vigorous faculties and fertile invention; and the last work, whatever it be, has necessarily most of the grace of novelty."
Johnson: Milton (Lives of the Poets)
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1,084. Writing; Vanity
"An assurance of unfading laurels, and immortal reputation, is the settled reciprocation of civility between amicable writers. To raise monuments more durable than brass, and more conspicuous than pyramids, has been long the common boast of literature; but among the innumerable architects that erect columns to themselves, far the greater part, either for want of durable materials, or of art to dispose them, see their edifices perish as they are towering to completion; and those few that for a while attract the eye of mankind are generally weak in the foundation, and soon sink by the saps of time."
Johnson: Rambler #106 (March 23, 1751)
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1,085. Obscurity; Writing; Vanity
"No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library; for who can see the wall crowded on every side by mighty volumes, the works of laborious meditations and accurate inquiry, now scarcely known but by the catalogue..."
Johnson: Rambler #106 (March 23, 1751)
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1,086. Fashion; Mediocrity; Obscurity; Op-Ed; Writing
"Of the innumerable authors whose performances are thus treasured up in magnificent obscurity [in a library], most are forgotten, because they never deserved to be remembered, and owed the honours which they once obtained, not to judgment or to genius, to labour or to art, but to the prejudice of faction, the strategems of intrigue, or the servility of adulation. Nothing is more common than to find men, whose works are now totally neglected, mentioned with praises by their contemporaries as the oracles of their age, and the legislators of science."
Johnson: Rambler #106 (March 23, 1751)
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1,088. Fashion; Mediocrity; Op-Ed; Popularity; Reading; Writing
"Among those whose reputation is exhausted in a short time by its own luxuriance are the writers who take advantage of present incidents or characters which strongly interest the passions, and engage universal attention. It is not difficult to obtain readers, when we discuss a question which every one is desirous to understand, which is debated in every assembly, and has divided the nation into parties; or when we display the faults or virtues of him whose public conduct has made almost every man his enemy or his friend."
Johnson: Rambler #106 (March 23, 1751)
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1,093. Fame; Obscurity; Writing
"There are, indeed, few kinds of composition from which an author, however learned or ingenious, can hope a long continuance of fame."
Johnson: Rambler #106 (March 23, 1751)
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1,154. History; Writing

"It is natural to believe ... that no writer has a more easy task than the historian. The philosopher has the works of omniscience to examine; and is therefore engaged in disquisitions, to which finite intellects are utterly unequal. The poet trusts to his invention, and is not only in danger of those inconsistencies to which every one is exposed by departure from truth, but may be censured as well for deficiencies of matter as for irregularity of disposition, or impropriety of ornament. But the happy historian has no other labour than of gathering what tradition pours down upon him, or records treasure for his use. He has only the actions and design of men like himself to conceive and to relate; he is not to form, but copy characters, and therefore is not blamed for the inconsistency of statesmen, the injustice of tyrants, or the cowardice of commanders. The difficulty of making variety consistent, or uniting probability with surprise, needs not to disturb him; the manners and actions of personages are already fixed; his materials are provided and put into his hands, and he is at leisure to employ all his powers in arranging and displaying them. Yet, even with these advantages, very few in any age have been able to raise themselves to reputation by writing histories..."
Johnson: Rambler #122 (May 18, 1751)
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1,159. Creativity; Progress; Writing
"There is ... scarcely any species of writing of which we can tell what is its essence, and what are its constituents; every new genius produces some innovation, which, when invented and approved, subverts the rules which the practice of foregoing authors had established."
Johnson: Rambler #125 (May 28, 1751)
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1,201. Country Life; Writing
"There is scarcely any writer who has not celebrated the happiness of rural privacy, and delighted himself and his reader with the melody of birds, the whisper of groves, and the murmur of rivulets."
Johnson: Rambler #135 (July 2, 1751)
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1,218. Writing
"Those authors who would find many readers, must endeavour to please while they instruct."
Johnson: Boerhaave
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1,219. Death; Truth; Writing
"In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath."
Boswell: Life of Johnson
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1,225. Originality; Plagiarism; Writing
"This accusation [plagiarism] is dangerous because, even when it is false, it may be sometimes urged with probability. Bruyere declares, that we are come into the world too late to produce anything new, that nature and life are preoccupied, and that description and sentiment have been long exhausted. It is, indeed, certain that, whoever attempts any common topic, will find unexpected coincidence of his thoughts with those of other writers; nor can the nicest judgment always distinguish accidental similitude from artful imitation. There is likewise a common stock of images, a settled mode of arrangement, and a beaten track of transition, which all authours suppose themselves at liberty to use, and which produces the resemblance generally observable among contemporaries. So that in books which best deserve the name of originals, there is little new beyond the disposition of materials already provided; the same ideas and combinations of ideas have been long in the possession of other hands."
Johnson: Rambler #143 (July 30, 1751)
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1,226. Originality; Plagiarism; Writing
"The authour who imitates his predecessors only by furnishing himself with thoughts and elegances out of the same general magazine of literature, can with little more propriety be reproached as a plagiary, than the architect can be censured as a mean copier of Angelo or Wren, because he digs his marble out of the same quarry, squares his stones by the same art, and unites them in columns of the same orders."
Johnson: Rambler #143 (July 30, 1751)
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1,227. Originality; Plagiarism; Writing
"No writer can be fully convicted of imitation except there is a concurrence of more resemblance than can be imagined to have happened by chance; as where the same ideas are conjoined without any natural series or necessary coherence, or where not only the thought but the words are copied."
Johnson: Rambler #143 (July 30, 1751)
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1,228. Originality; Plagiarism; Writing
"As not every instance of similitude can be considered as a proof of imitation, so not every imitation ought to be stigmatised as plagiarism. The adoption of a noble sentiment, or the insertion of a borrowed ornament, may sometimes display so much judgment as will almost compensate for invention; and an inferior genius may, without any imputation of servility, pursue the paths of the ancients, provided he declines to tread in their footsteps."
Johnson: Rambler #143 (July 30, 1751)
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1,235. Writing
"As every writer has his use, every writer ought to have his patrons; and since no man, however high he may now stand, can be certain that he shall not be soon thrown down from his elevation by criticism or caprice, the common interest of learning requires that her sons should cease from intestine hostilities, and, instead of sacrificing each other to malice and contempt, endeavour to avert persecution from the meanest of their fraternity."
Johnson: Rambler #145 (August 6, 1751)
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1,253. Letters; Writing
"The purpose for which letters are written when no intelligence is communicated or business transacted, is to preserve in the minds of the absent either love or esteem; to excite love we must impart pleasure, and to raise esteem we must discover abilities. Pleasure will generally be given as abilities are displayed by scenes of imagery, points of conceit, unexpected sallies, and artful compliments. Trifles always require exuberance of ornament; the building which has no strength can be valued only for the grace of its decorations. The pebble must be polished with care, which hopes to be valued as a diamond; and words ought surely to be laboured, when they are intended to stand for things."
Johnson: Rambler #152 (August 31, 1751)
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1,275. Creativity; Tradition; Writing
"It ought to be the first endeavour of a writer to distinguish nature from custom; or that which is established because it is right, from that which is right only because it is established; that he may neither violate essential principles by a desire of novelty, nor debar himself from the attainment of beauties within his view, by a needless fear of breaking rules which no literary dictator had authority to enact."
Johnson: Rambler #156 (September 14, 1751)
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1,280. Criticism; Writing
"In writing, as in life, faults are endured without disgust when they are associated with transcendent merit, and may be sometimes recommended to weak judgments by the lustre which they obtain from their union with excellence; but it is the business of those who presume to superintend the taste or morals of mankind to separate delusive combinations, and distinguish that which may be praised from that which can only be excused."
Johnson: Rambler #158 (September 21, 1751)
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1,347. Writing
"Among the numerous requisites that must concur to complete an author, few are of more importance than an early entrance into the living world. The seed of knowledge may be planted in solitude, but must be cultivated in public. Argumentation may be taught in colleges, and theories formed in retirement; but the artifice of embellishment and the powers of attraction can be gained only by a general converse."
Johnson: Rambler #168 (October 26, 1751)
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1,348. Popularity; Writing
"Whoever desires, for his writings or himself, what none can reasonably contemn, the favour of mankind, must add grace to strength, and make his thoughts agreeable as well as useful. Many complain of neglect who never tried to attract regard."
Johnson: Rambler #168 (October 26, 1751)
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1,383. Writing
It has been circulated, I know not with what authenticity, that Johnson considered Dr. Birch as a dull writer, and said of him, "Tom Birch is as brisk as a bee in conversation; but no sooner does he take a pen in his hand, than it becomes a torpedo to him, and benumbs all his faculties."
Boswell: Life of Johnson
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1,384. Criticism; Writing
"The diversion of baiting an author has the sanction of all ages and nations, and is more lawful than the sport of teasing other animals, because, for the most part, he comes voluntarily to the stake, furnished, as he imagines, by the patron powers of literature, with resistless weapons, and impenetrable armour, with the mail of the boar of Erymanth, and the paws of the lion of Nemea."."
Johnson: Rambler #176 (November 23, 1751)
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1,386. Criticism; Self-Confidence; Writing
"Critics ought never to be consulted, but while errors may yet be rectified or insipidity suppressed. But when the book has once been dismissed into the world, and can be no more retouched, I know not whether a very different conduct should not be prescribed, and whether firmness and spirit may not sometimes be of use to overpower arrogance and repel brutality."
Johnson: Rambler #176 (November 23, 1751)
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1,387. Criticism; Sensitivity; Writing
"The animadversions of critics are commonly such as may easily provoke the sedatest writer to some quickness of resentment and asperity of reply."
Johnson: Rambler #176 (November 23, 1751)
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1,493. Writing
"He that condemns himself to compose on a stated day will often bring to his task attention dissipated, a memory embarrassed, an imagination overwhelmed, a mind distracted with anxieties, a body languishing with disease: he will labour on a barren topic till it is too late to change it; or, in the ardour of invention, diffuse his thoughts into wild exuberance, which the pressing hour of publication cannot suffer judgment to examine or reduce."
Johnson: Rambler #208 (March 14, 1752)
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1,525. Obscurity; Writing
"It often happens that an author's reputation is endangered in succeeding times, by that which raised the loudest applause among his contemporaries: nothing is read with greater pleasure than allusions to recent facts, reigning opinions, or present controversies; but when facts are forgotten, and controversies extinguished, these favorite touches lose all their graces; and the author in his descent to posterity must be left to the mercy of chance, without any power of ascertaining the memory of those things, to which he owed his luckiest thoughts and his kindest reception."
Johnson: Adventurer #58 (May 25, 1753)
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1,561. Solitude; Writing
"Boerhaave complains, that the writers who have treated of chymistry before him, are useless to the greater part of students, because they presuppose their readers to have such degrees of skill as are not often to be found. Into the same errour are all men apt to fall, who have familiarized any subject to themselves in solitude: they discourse, as if they thought every other man had been employed in the same enquiries; and expect that short hints and obscure allusions will produce in others the same train of ideas which they excite in themselves."
Johnson: Adventurer #85 (August 28, 1753)
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1,563. Conversation; Sophistry; Writing
"To fix the thoughts by writing, and subject them to frequent examinations and reviews, is the best method of enabling the mind to detect its own sophisms, and keep it on guard against the fallacies which it practises on others: in conversation we naturally diffuse our thoughts, and in writing we contract them; method is the excellence of writing, and unconstraint the grace of conversation."
Johnson: Adventurer #85 (August 28, 1753)
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1,564. Writing
"To read, write, and converse in due proportions, is, therefore, the business of a man of letters."
Johnson: Adventurer #85 (August 28, 1753)
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1,572. Originality; Writing
"The complaint, therefore, that all topicks are preoccupied, is nothing more than the murmur of ignorance or idleness, by which some discourage others, and some themselves; the mutability of mankind will always furnish writers with new images, and the luxuriance of fancy may always embellish them with new decorations."
Johnson: Adventurer #95 (October 2, 1753)
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1,588. Writing
"There are certain topicks which are never exhausted. Of some images and sentiments the mind of man may be said to be enamoured; it meets them, however often they occur, with the same ardour which a lover feels at the sight of his mistress, and parts from them with the same regret when they can no longer be enjoyed."
Johnson: Adventurer #108 (November 17, 1753)
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1,589. Spring; Writing
"When a poet mentions the spring, we know that the zephyrs are about to whisper, that the groves are to recover their verdure, the linnets to warble forth their notes of love, and the flocks and herds to frisk over vales painted with flowers: yet, who is there so insensible of the beauties of nature, so little delighted with the renovation of the world, as not to feel his heart bound at the mention of the spring?"
Johnson: Adventurer #108 (November 17, 1753)
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1,599. Reading; Writing
"General irregularities are known in time to remedy themselves. By the constitution of ancient Egypt, the priesthood was continually increasing, till at length there was no people beside themselves; the establishment was then dissolved, and the number of priests was reduced and limited. Thus among us, writers will, perhaps, be multiplied, till no readers will be found, and then the ambition of writing must necessarily cease."
Johnson: Adventurer #115 (December 11, 1753)
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1,601. Writing
"The first qualification of a writer, is a perfect knowledge of the subject which he undertakes to treat; since we cannot teach what we do not know, nor can properly undertake to instruct others, while we are ourselves in want of instruction. The next requisite is, that he be master of the language in which he delivers his sentiments: if he treats of science and demonstration, that he has attained a style clear, pure, nervous, and expressive; if his topicks be probable and persuasory, that he be able to recommend them by the superaddition of elegance and imagery, to display the colours of varied diction, and pour forth the music of modulated periods."
Johnson: Adventurer #115 (December 11, 1753)
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1,607. Writing
"The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it."
Johnson: Review of Soame Jenyns' "A Free Enquiry Into the Nature and Origin of Evil"
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1,668. Writing
"It is, however, not necessary, that a man should forbear to write, till he has discovered some truth unknown before; he may be sufficiently useful, by only diversifying the surface of knowledge, and luring the mind by a new appearance to a second view of those beauties which it had passed over inattentively before."
Johnson: Adventurer #137 (February 26, 1754)
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1,670. Writing

If we apply to authors themselves for an account of their state, it will appear very little to deserve envy; for they have in all ages been addicted to complaint. The neglect of learning, the ingratitude of the present age, and the absurd preference by which ignorance and dulness often obtain favour and rewards, have been from age to age topicks of invective; and few have left their names to posterity, without some appeal to future candour from the perverseness and malice of their own times.

I have, nevertheless, been often inclined to doubt, whether authors, however querulous, are in reality more miserable than their fellow mortals. The present life to all is a state of infelicity...

Johnson: Adventurer #138 (March 2, 1754)
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1,671. Writing
"To write is, indeed, no unpleasing employment, when one sentiment readily produces another, and both ideas and expressions present themselves at the first summons; but such happiness, the greatest genius does not always obtain; and common writers know it only to such a degree, as to credit its possibility. Composition is, for the most part, an effort of slow diligence and steady perseverance, to which the mind is dragged by necessity or resolution, and from which the attention is every moment starting to more delightful amusements."
Johnson: Adventurer #138 (March 2, 1754)
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1,677. Communication; Style; Writing
"Every man speaks and writes with intent to be understood; and it can seldom happen but he that understands himself, might convey his notions to another, if, content to be understood, he did not seek to be admired; but when once he begins to contrive how his sentiments may be received, not with most ease to his reader, but with most advantage to himself, he then transfers his consideration from words to sounds, from sentences to periods, and, as he grows more elegant, becomes less intelligible."
Johnson: Idler #36 (December 23, 1758)
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1,718. Reading; Writing
"What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure."
Johnson (quoted in Seward's Biographiana, found in Johnsonian Miscellanies, edited by G.B. Hill)
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1,745. Leadership; Writing
"Those who will not take the trouble to think for themselves, have always somebody that thinks for them; and the difficulty in writing is to please those from whom others learn to be pleased."
Johnson: Idler #3 (April 29, 1758)
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1,750. Fame; Writing
"He that writes upon general principles, or delivers universal truths, may hope to be often read, because his work will be equally useful at all times and in every country; but he cannot expect it to be received with eagerness, or to spread with rapidity, because desire can have no particular stimulation: that which is to be loved long, must be loved with reason rather than with passion. He that lays his labours out upon temporary subjects, easily finds readers and quickly loses them; for what should make the book valued when the subject is no more?"
Johnson: Idler #59 (June 2, 1759)
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1,760. History; Writing
"There are some works which the authors must consign unpublished to posterity, however uncertain be the event, however hopeless be the trust. He that writes the history of his own times, if he adhere steadily to truth, will write that which his own times will not easily endure. He must be content to reposite his book till all private passions shall cease, and love and hatred give way to curiosity."
Johnson: Idler #65 (July 14, 1759)
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1,761. Writing
"Many leave the labours of half their life to their executors and to chance, because they will not send them abroad unfinished, and are unable to finish them, having prescribed to themselves such a degree of exactness as human diligence can scarcely ontain."
Johnson: Idler #65 (July 14, 1759)
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1,765. Writing
"If an author be supposed to involve his thoughts in voluntary obscurity, and to obstruct, by unnecessary difficulties, a mind eager in the pursuit of truth; if he writes not to make others learned, but to boast the learning which he possesses himself, and wishes to be admired rather than understood, he counteracts the first end of writing, and justly suffers the utmost severity of censure, or the more afflicting severity of neglect."
Johnson: Idler #70 (August 18, 1759)
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1,809. Compilations; Writing
"Few of those who fill the world with books, have any pretensions to the hope either of pleasing or instructing. They have often no other task than to lay two books before them, out of which they compile a third, without any new material of their own, and with very little application of judgment to those which former authors have supplied."
Johnson: Idler #85 (December 1, 1759)
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1,810. Compilations; Writing
"That all compilations are useless, I do not assert. Particles of science are often very widely scattered. Writers of extensive comprehension have incidental remarks upon topicks very remote from the principal subject, which are often more valuable than formal treatises, and which yet are not known because they are not promised in the title. He that collects those under proper heads is very laudably employed; for though he exerts no great abilities in the work, he facilitates the progress of others, and, by making that easy of attainment which is already written, may give some mind, more vigorous or more adventurous than his own, leisure for new thoughts and original designs."
Johnson: Idler #85 (December 1, 1759)
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1,811. Compilations; Writing
"Truth, like beauty, varies its fashions, and is best recommended by different dresses to different minds; and he that recalls the attention of mankind to any part of learning which time has left behind it, may be truly said to advance the literatures of his own age. As the manners of nations vary, new topicks of persuasion become necessary, and new combinations of imagery are produced; and he that can accommodate himself to the reigning taste, may always have readers who perhaps would not have looked upon better performances."
Johnson: Idler #85 (December 1, 1759)
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1,812. Originality; Writing
"To exact of every man who writes that he should say something new, would be to reduce authors to a small number; to oblige the most fertile genius to say only what is new, would be to contract his volumes to a few pages. Yet, surely, there ought to be some bounds to repetition; libraries ought no more to be heaped for ever with the same thoughts differently expressed, than with the same books differently decorated."
Johnson: Idler #85 (December 1, 1759)
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1,813. Fame; Writing
"The authors that in any nation last from age to age are very few, because there are very few that have any other claim to notice than that they catch hold on present curiosity, and gratify some accidental desire, or produce some temporary conveniency."
Johnson: Idler #85 (December 1, 1759)
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1,857. Criticism; Reading; Tradition; Writing
"There are three distinct kind of judges upon all new authors or productions; the first are those who know no rules, but pronounce entirely from their natural taste and feelings; the second are those who know and judge by rules; and the third are those who know, but are above the rules. These last are those you should wish to satisfy. Next to them rate the natural judges; but ever despise those opinions that are formed by the rules."
Fanny Burney: Diaries and letters
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1,861. Biography; Writing
"It very seldom happens to man that his business is his pleasure. What is done from necessity is so often to be done when against the present inclination, and so often fills the mind with anxiety, that an habitual dislike steals upon us, and we shrink involuntarily from the remembrance of our task. This is the reason why almost everyone wishes to quit his employment; he does not like another state, but is disgusted with his own.

"From this unwillingness to perform more than is required of that which is commonly performed with reluctance, it proceeds that few authors write their own lives. Statesmen, courtiers, ladies, generals, and seamen, have given to the world their own stories, and the events with which their different stations have made them acquainted. They retired to the closet as to a place of quiet and amusement, and pleased themselves with writing, because they could lay down the pen whenever they were weary. But the author, however conspicuous, or however important, either in the publick eye or in his own, leaves his life to be related by his successors, for he cannot gratify his vanity but by sacrificing his case."
Johnson: Idler #102 (March 29, 1760)
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1,864. Biography; Humanity; Writing
It is commonly supposed that the uniformity of a studious life affords no matter for narration: but the truth is, that of the most studious life a great part passes without study. An author partakes of the common condition of humanity; he is born and married like another man; he has hopes and fears, expectations and disappointments, griefs and joys, and friends and enemies, like a courtier or a statesman; nor can I conceive why his affairs shuld not excite curiosity as much as the whisper of a drawing-room, or the factions of a camp.
Johnson: Idler #102 (March 29, 1760)
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1,865. Biography; Reading; Writing
Nothing detains the reader's attention more powerfully than deep involutions of distress, or sudden vicissitudes of fortune; and these might be abundantly afforded by memoirs of the sons of literature. They are entangled by contracts which they know not how to fulfill, and obliged to write on subjects which they do not understand. Every publication is a new period of time, from which some increase or declension of fame is to be reckoned. The gradations of a hero's life are from battle to battle, and of an author's from book to book.
Johnson: Idler #102 (March 29, 1760)
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1,866. Failure; Fame; Humanity; Success; Writing
Success and miscarriage have the same effect in all conditions. The prosperous are feared, hated, and flattered; and the unfortunate avoided, pitied, and despised. No sooner is a book published than the writer may judge of the opinion of the world. If his acquaintance press around him in publick places, or salute from the other side of the street; if invitations to dinner come thick upon him, and those with whom he dines keep him to supper; if the ladies turn to him when his coat is plain, and the footmen serve him with attention and alacrity; he may be sure that his work has been praised by some leader of literary fashions.

Of declining reputation the symptoms are not less easily observed. If the author enters a coffee-house, he has a box to himself; if he calls at a bookseller's, the boy turns his back; and, what is the most fatal of all prognosticks, authors will visit him in a morning, and talk to him hour after hour of the malevolence of criticks, the neglect of merit, the bad taste of the age, and the candour of posterity.
Johnson: Idler #102 (March 29, 1760) Link


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