Aristotle’s rules for writing

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Aristotle was a philosopher from ancient Greece who was born about 384 BC in Stagira on the northern border of Greece. At the age of 17, he enrolled in Plato’s Academy where he studied a wide variety of different subjects. His writings include treatises on physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theater, music, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, and writing. In 343 BC, shortly after the death of Plato, Aristotle went off to tutor Alexander the Great. He went on to found his own school, the Lyceum, where he taught on many subjects, studied widely and wrote. Aristotle died in 322 BC. He had quite a bit to say about the theory of writing. Here are some of his quotes:

To write well, express yourself like the common people, but think like a wise man.

It is amazing how many times this tenet is broken by modern novelists. Literary novels can sometimes be guilty of flouting this rule and, I guess, that’s part of their mystique – but it’s also why they usually have a much smaller readership than the blockbusters and bestsellers that are read by millions. Often, literary novelists express themselves like the wise men, as well as thinking like wise men. Obviously, a good number of readers relish the challenge of keeping up with the intellectual gymnastics of the literary novelist or none of their books would never be sold. So perhaps there is room to bend or break this rule if you are writing in that particular genre.

On the other hand, popular novels sometimes express themselves like the common people, but also think like the common people. Is there anything wrong with that? Not if the book is also well-written. But the world is stuffed with dumbed-down, poorly-written, trashy novels that don’t really enhance the reading experience, edify the mind, or challenge the widely held belief systems of society, but simply confirm the reading public in their preferences and prejudices, targeting the communal comfort zones of Western civilization. Surely a good book should add something – an attitude, knowledge, a rethink – to the reader rather than merely reiterate the same old plots, characters and world-views as other books in the popular genres.

To my mind, the kind of literature that seems to obey this Aristotelian rule most is the classic whodunit in which the author, as if by magic, draws a complex tangle of plot strands together to create a satisfying conclusion. This is a prime example of thinking like a wise man, but speaking plainly like the common people.

 The greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.

The obvious application of this is in poetry, where if you don’t have a command of metaphor, you’re pretty much sunk. But the same applies to good novel writing (and even essay writing). Here are some examples of great metaphors from a variety of different sources:

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances. William Shakespeare

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. Pablo Picasso

I am the good shepherd, … and I lay down my life for the sheep. Jesus Christ

All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. Albert Einstein

Chaos is a friend of mine. Bob Dylan

All our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of the mind. Khalil Gibran

If you want a love message to be heard, it has got to be sent out. To keep a lamp burning, we have to keep putting oil in it. Mother Teresa

America has tossed its cap over the wall of space. John F. Kennedy

Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom. Marcel Proust

Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket. George Orwell

In general, what is written must be easy to read and easy to speak; which is the same.

I usually find this with poetry. When I am writing a poem, I often read it aloud or mutter it to myself, to make sure that it sounds right. Sometimes, when I do this, I get strange looks from people in public places. And sometimes I find that I have written a tongue-twister that is unpronounceable by the average human larynx and I have to change something to make it flow properly – or even rewrite the whole thing.

As for the story, whether the poet takes it ready made or constructs it for himself, he should first sketch its general outline, and then fill in the episodes and amplify in detail.

This is a bit of a controversial one. Some writers swear by outlining, as though it is impossible to write a novel without having a clear plan for what happens in each chapter. Others fly by the seat of their pants. Pantsers, as they are called, say it is much more entertaining for the writer to not know what is going to happen next. I started off as a pantser but gradually became a firm outliner over a period of time. What I found with my first novel, Lab Rat, was that I ended up with over 100k words and about 30 characters too many. It took a lot of work to chop that thing down to a manageable size, mostly by chopping whole scenes, plot strands and characters. The next novel, Four Degrees, was half-written without knowing what was going to happen next, when I decided I’d better draw up an outline. As time went on, I found that writing an outline earlier in the process resulted in a more coherent novel that required much fewer major changes. Now, I’m definitely an outliner. I would have to admit, though, that a little of the fizz goes out of writing if you already know what is going to happen. It’s a pay-off I’m willing to make, since in the long run it makes the job easier.


Most of what Aristotle has to say on the subject of writing is, surprisingly, still applicable today. Most of it is also applicable regardless of what kind of writing you are doing: novels, poetry, scriptwriting or non-fiction. When he died at the age of 62, he left behind a legacy that is still being talked about, utilized and taught in colleges and universities even today. He has had an enormous influence on the development of western thought under many different disciplines, and any writer who wants to develop and succeed should take his advice seriously.