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Writing Advice From An Ancient Sage

“When you have finished a piece of writing, put it away for nine years.”

This advice was offered by one of the ancients, Horace or Homer, I’m not sure which, to budding writers of the time. At least, that’s what I’ve been told…

While at first it may seHomer And His Guideem unbelievable that anyone could take this suggestion seriously, on reflection it might not be quite as silly as it sounds.

If we look at the statement in relation to its cultural and historical context, perhaps the idea seems to make more sense. Let’s assume the writer was working sometime around 5BC, with candle power to show light on his manuscript and with parchment and a simple wooden pen as the only tools of his trade.

What he was saying is this: if you’re going to write something, stand back a little from your work before you pass it around. A little distance might reveal some hitherto unseen connections, or perhaps the odd faux pas, and maybe even something vaguely libellous. In 5BC you could probably lose your life for an unintentional insult. Today you might just lose your house in a law suit.

A factor now offering new challenges to the would-be writer’s credibility is technology. Technology has been with us since the first chimp started using a long, needle-like twig to spear honey ants in a nest. That was a fairly simple process even then, but now it seems that the more complex the technology the more likely we are to trip ourselves up.

On the death of Hunter S. Thompson it was reported by the Cleveland Plain Dealer that U.S. President Nixon described the writer as representing “that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character”. But in fact it was actually the other way around. The comment was made by Hunter S. Thompson, and he was describing Richard Nixon.

The newspaper attributed the mistake to wrong information circulated by Associated Press, but whatever the circumstances someone got it wrong, and because we now have the means to communicate with each other almost instantly we also have the means to redistribute bad journalism. It’s easy to read an article on a Web page and assume that the writer has all the facts, but there are many other examples of the wrong information being circulated either as hoaxes, as urban myth, or as just plain bad writing.

So the moral of the story is, when you finish a piece of writing, make sure of your sources, give accurate reference, and put it away for at least nine minutes while your reflect on the harm you might cause to yourself and others when recycling other people’s mistakes.

Check out the funny side of wrong information at Gelf

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