Charles Colton

On writing

The awkwardness and embarrassment which all feel on beginning to write, when they themselves are the theme, ought to serve as a hint to authors, that self is a subject they ought very rarely to descant upon. It is extremely easy to be as egotistical as Montaigne, and as conceited as Rousseau; but it is extremely difficult to be as entertaining as the one, or as eloquent as the other.

Men whose reputation stands deservedly high as writers, have often miserably failed as speakers: their pens seem to have been enriched at the expense of their tongues. Addison and Gibbon attempted oratory in the senate, only to fail. “The good speakers,” says Gibbon, “filled me with despair, the bad ones with apprehension.” And in more modern times, the powerful depicter of Harold, and the elegant biographer of Leo, have both failed in oratory; the capital of the former is so great in many things, that he can afford to fail in one. But to return, many reasons might be offered to reconcile that contradiction which my subject seems to involve. In the first place, those talents that constitute a fine writer, are more distinct from those that constitute an orator, than might be at first supposed; I admit that they may be sometimes accidentally, but never necessarily combined.—That the qualifications for writing and those for eloquence, are in many points distinct, would appear from the converse of the proposition, for there have been many fine speakers, who have proved themselves bad writers. There is good ground for believing that Mr. Pitt would not have shone as an author; and the attempt of Mr. Fox in that arena, has added nothing to his celebrity. Abstraction of thought, seclusion from popular tumult, occasional retirement to the study, a diffidence in our own opinions, a deference to those of other men, a sensibility that feels every thing, a humility that arrogates nothing, are necessary qualifications for a writer; but their very opposites would perhaps preferred by an orator. He that has spent much of his time in a study, will seldom be collected enough to think in a crowd, or confident enough to talk in one. We may also add; that mistakes of the pen in the study, may be committed without publicity; and rectified without humiliation. But mistakes of the tongue, committed in the senate, never escape with impunity. Fugit irrevocabile verbum. Eloquence, to produce her full effect, should start from the head of the orator, as Pallas from the brain of Jove, completely armed and equipped. Diffidence, therefore, which is so able a mentor to the writer, would prove a dangerous counsellor for the orator. As writers, the most timid may boggle twenty times in a day with their pen, and it is their own fault if it be known even to their valet; but, as orators, if they chance to boggle once with their tongue, the detection is as public as the delinquency; the punishment is irremissible, and immediately follows the offence. It is the knowledge and the fear of this, that destroys their eloquence as orators, who have sensibility and taste for writing, but neither collectedness nor confidence for speaking; for fear not only magnifies difficulties, but diminishes our power to overcome them, and thus doubly debilitates her victims. But another cause of their deficiency as orators, who have shone as writers, is this, mole runt sua ;' they know they have a character to support by their tongue, which they have previously gained by their pen, They rise, determined to attempt more than other men, and for that very reason they effect less, and doubly disappoint their hearers. They miss of that which is clear, obvious, and appropriate, in a laboured search after that which is far-fetched, recondite, and refined; like him that would fain give us better bread than can be made of wheat. Affectation is the cause of this error, disgust its consequence, and disgrace its punishment.


MLA Citation

Colton, Charles. “On writing.” 2008. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 27 Oct 2008. 04 Dec 2023 <>.

Patrick Madden's New Book
Quotidiana by Patrick Madden

Join Us on Facebook
facebook logo

Generate PDF

Related Essays


Agnes Repplier

Writers are often so blind to the value of words that they are content with a bare expression of their thoughts, disdaining the "labor of the file," and confident that the phrase first seized is for them the phrase of inspiration.

“Charles Lamb”

Thomas De Quincey

Charles Lamb, if any ever was is amongst the class here contemplated; he, if any ever has, ranks amongst writers whose works are destined to be forever unpopular, and yet forever interesting; interesting, moreover, by means of those very qualities which guarantee their non-popularity.

“The pleasure of writing”

A. A. Milne

For it was enough for me this morning just to write; with spring coming in through the open windows and my good Canadian quill in my hand.

“On washerwomen”

Leigh Hunt

The beauty of this unlimited power of suggestion in writing is, that you may take up the driest and most commonplace of all possible subjects, and strike a light out of it to warm your intellect and your heart by.

“On familiar style”

William Hazlitt

I conceive that words are like money, not the worse for being common, but that it is the stamp of custom alone that gives them circulation or value.