Writing Advice: Choose a Great Subject

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 1.1:

I am persuaded that it is necessary for those who have undertaken to leave behind memorials of their mind for posterity, which will not disappear along with their bodies under the influence of time, and most of all for those who write down histories, in which we understand that truth, the beginning of prudence and wisdom, is enshrined, to first take up subjects which are beautiful, lofty, and confer much benefit to those who read them, and then to prepare all of the necessary resources for writing the subject with much care and loving labor. For those who have set down infamous or ignoble works, or ones deserving of no earnest historical study, whether it be because they strive to reach some fame or chance upon some name for themselves, or whether they plan to display their abundance of rhetorical power, are neither courted eagerly by later generations for their fame, nor are they praised for their power, since they have left an impression in those who take up their works that they themselves wished for lives of the sort which they wrote in their histories. Rightly so do all people think that words are the icons of a person’s mind.

ἐπείσθην γὰρ ὅτι δεῖ τοὺς προαιρουμένους μνημεῖα τῆς ἑαυτῶν ψυχῆς τοῖς ἐπιγιγνομένοις καταλιπεῖν, ἃ μὴ συναφανισθήσεται τοῖς σώμασιν αὐτῶν ὑπὸ τοῦ χρόνου, καὶ πάντων μάλιστα τοὺς ἀναγράφοντας ἱστορίας, ἐν αἷς καθιδρῦσθαι τὴν ἀλήθειαν [πάντες] ὑπολαμβάνομεν ἀρχὴν φρονήσεώς τε καὶ σοφίας οὖσαν, πρῶτον μὲν ὑποθέσεις προαιρεῖσθαι καλὰς καὶ μεγαλοπρεπεῖς καὶ πολλὴν ὠφέλειαν τοῖς ἀναγνωσομένοις φερούσας, ἔπειτα παρασκευάζεσθαι τὰς ἐπιτηδείους εἰς τὴν ἀναγραφὴν τῆς ὑποθέσεως ἀφορμὰς μετὰ πολλῆς ἐπιμελείας τε καὶ φιλοπονίας. οἱ μὲν γὰρ ὑπὲρ ἀδόξων πραγμάτων ἢ πονηρῶν ἢ μηδεμιᾶς σπουδῆς ἀξίων ἱστορικὰς καταβαλόμενοι πραγματείας, εἴτε τοῦ προελθεῖν εἰς γνῶσιν ὀρεγόμενοι καὶ τυχεῖν ὁποιουδήποτε ὀνόματος, εἴτε περιουσίαν ἀποδείξασθαι τῆς περὶ λόγους δυνάμεως βουλόμενοι, οὔτε τῆς γνώσεως ζηλοῦνται παρὰ τοῖς ἐπιγιγνομένοις οὔτε τῆς δυνάμεως ἐπαινοῦνται, δόξαν ἐγκαταλιπόντες τοῖς ἀναλαμβάνουσιν αὐτῶν τὰς ἱστορίας, ὅτι τοιούτους ἐζήλωσαν αὐτοὶ βίους, οἵας ἐξέδωκαν τὰς γραφάς· ἐπιεικῶς γὰρ ἅπαντες νομίζουσιν εἰκόνας εἶναι τῆς ἑκάστου ψυχῆς τοὺς λόγους.

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