Advice on writing essays

While he was one of the four tutors at Oriel College Oxford (from 1826 to 1831), Newman felt obliged to offer extended advice on the art of composing to a set theme, since essay writing was a relatively recent innovation. He tells one student that when he writes an essay, he should ‘endeavour to be in earnest, that he is not expected to keep to truisms, that he need not be ‘dull or grave – release yourself from the notion. In writing, you should aim at saying on your subject, just what you would say, supposing you were obliged in society to talk upon it.’ Not that the subject in question was likely to arise in discussion with friends, ‘but you can fancy yourself thrown among older people, and forced to give your opinion. You would be obliged to say something, & though you might feel awkward, would clearly comprehend what was required of you’ – and, equally, what was not. To accomplish this would require an effort at first, but the student was told that he would gradually improve and acquire the facility.

Another student had been given a subject which ended with the phrase ‘make the best of events, when they come, whatever they are’. Newman advised him, ‘Never take a thesis as an abstract proposition but try to examine how far it is true in life – and try to recollect what instances you have known of it – i.e. though it be true, do not at once assume it to be so – then consider the effects of it – whether good or not.’ (Memorandum Book about College Pupils, 1826–31)

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