Classical Writing Method

The Method

Theory Classical vs. Modern Pedagogy
Analysis & Imitation Why Use a Pagan Method?
Practice Classically Trained Great Minds

The method of writing instruction taught by Classical Writing echoes that of the classical world, and originates with Aristotle. It is comprised of three components:

• Theory
• Analysis and Imitation
• Practice

Great works of literature provide the best material for the student to learn and practice each of these components. Therefore, the models we have chosen are among the best of the Western tradition.

According to the first-century Roman teacher and orator Quintilian:

It is from authors worthy of our study that we must draw our stock of words, the variety of our figures and our methods of composition, while we must form our minds on the model of every excellence. There can be no doubt that in art no small portion of our task lies in imitation. [...] And it is a universal rule of life that we should wish to copy what we approve in others. (X.ii.1-2)

As the Classical Writing student progresses through the sequential exercises of the Progymnasmata, he follows a routine of Theory, Analysis and Imitation, and Practice at each level.


In each of our books, the student is first taught grammatical, logical, or rhetorical skills. Those skills are then practiced in analysis and imitation exercises. Finally the student applies those skills to his writing projects. Skills from earlier books are honed and added to in subsequent Classical Writing books.
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Analysis and Imitation

Next, the student applies the theory he has learned to the model in the analysis and imitation steps. He studies the model in depth, taking apart every sentence, word by word. He looks at spelling, vocabulary, figures of speech, and at the rhythm and arrangement of words. Moving up a level to analyze whole sentences and paragraphs, he studies logical progression of thought, literary content and the general style of the passage.

Once the student has completed analysis of a model, the next step is imitation. At the most basic level, imitation consists of copywork or dictation. As the student matures, imitation becomes more complex and involves following the content, organization, and/or style of literature. To imitate content, the student would borrow an author’s subject matter, for example, by retelling the same fable, story or historical event in his own words. To imitate the organization or arrangement of a model, the student would study its outline and approach to the subject and then write a similar composition on a related topic.
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Practice (Writing Projects)

Finally, the student must also learn how to create his own original and independent compositions. This requires practice. For a beginning student, much imitation is practice, and much practice is imitation -- the two meld into one another. But as the student gradually matures in his writing skills, his compositions become increasingly independent. Theory, analysis, and imitation arm the student with a battery of tools from which to choose. Practice trains him to use them. Guidelines and examples can be given, but personal experience in writing—lots of it—is the last and best teacher.

To sum up the classical teaching method: theory, analysis and imitation, and practice, practice, practice.
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Classical vs. Modern Writing Pedagogy

Parents and students should note that Classical Writing differs dramatically from typical modern writing programs. With modern methods, only naturally gifted people learn to write with eloquence and persuasion. A lack of critical thinking about meaningful content, a lack of precision and flexibility in the use of words and sentences, a lack of attention to the fitting organization and content of a composition for a given audience, and an abominable lack of style permeate most modern writing programs. In short, modern writing has radically "dumbed down" the rich, classical heritage of true, beautiful, good and persuasive writing.

In modern writing pedagogy, where "creativity" and "originality" are of the utmost importance, the classical method is thought to hamper student creativity in writing. It is thought to be far too heavy on theory ("stifling rules and regulations") and far too rooted in imitation ("slavish copying"). Just the opposite is true. Why? To find out, we must try to see how all the ancients, including the early Christians, saw the world in a very different way.

The ancients and early Christians understood that great writing, like any great art, was not something transient, but an approach to eternal ideals. Eternal virtues such as truth, beauty, and goodness exist, and it is the purpose of art to approach them. Great writing is great because it reaches for and approaches these ideals.

Practically, the reason we study great writing is because it works. We do not want to reinvent the wheel. The basic classical premise in any art, is that man in his creativity is trying to imitate creation, the ultimate product of divine creativity. From studies of creation, the ancient Greeks discerned that the world is rationally ordered, that it works according to fixed laws, principles, and forms. The aim of Art, including the art of writing, was the imitation of existing objective forms, an emulation of that which is permanent and ordered. The art of rhetoric was particularly concerned with the ideal—with what "ought to be"—with the virtues of truth, beauty, and goodness. Hence the chief purpose of writing is to communicate those virtues. For the Church Fathers, it was no different. Their writing sought to communicate God’s truth, beauty, and goodness.

Truth does not change with the passing of many generations of men; "originality" and "creativity" therefore must take a back seat. Truth, which is rooted in the Creator, is not something we make up to suit our own preferences. There are universal standards to which it conforms. The same goes for goodness and beauty, and for all virtue. New and different ways of teaching and practicing the art of writing are not to be commended simply because they are new and different. Rather, they must be judged on the basis of their conformity to divine principles of order as well as on the basis of the character of the writers they turn out.
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Why Use a Pagan Method?

The classical method of writing originated in ancient Greece, yet far from being the sole possession of the pagan world, the classical mode of composition was adopted by Christian scholars from the very start of the Christian Era. Christians were making the best use of the culture into which they were placed. In the words of Augustine, they were "plundering the Egyptians".

"As the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves were not making a good use of;[1] in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also,—that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life,—we must take and turn to a Christian use." ~ Augustine, On Christian Doctrine
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Classically Trained Great Minds

Finally, consider just a few of the many great minds produced by classical training: The Apostle Paul, Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas More, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Henry Cardinal Newman, and C.S. Lewis. 
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