Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ask O: What Can I Learn from the Ancients?

Happy Wednesday, my writing friends!

If you’ve been reading my column very long, you may have sleuthed that I’m a homeschool mom. One amazing thing about homeschooling is I get to learn right along with my kids. It’s so fun! And, helpful … homeschooling’s how I discovered a hidden pearl, a buried treasure, a lost coin often overlooked (at least by any writers I’ve heard of). What is it, you ask?

The progymnasmata.

The word comes from the Greek, pro, meaning before and gymnasmata meaning exercises. So you get, “before exercises.” Those smart ancients actually learned their craft before they tried to do it. Imagine! It’s sort of like how artists often study Raphael, Renoir, or other greats—even copy their work—before creating their own original.

When it came to writing, the Greeks trained their students to examine the classic works and mimic them (with a whole ladder of exercises) before penning their manuscripts. By doing these exercises in order, writers strengthened their ability to communicate, like how pumping iron builds muscles.
The ancients’ structure and forethought intrigued me. There had to be a way to apply the overall concept to my own fiction writing. So, rather than going through each step, I took the premise of mimicking the greats, and beginning with phrases and sentences, expanded from there.

I Like How She Said That

Often when I’m reading a good book, I’ll spot a phrase with an ear-pleasing cadence. I tend to gravitate to the classics, so here’s one from Jane Eyre.

Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last.

I inspected the structure to form my own.

Writing is a joy. Being published is a gift. To love the first is not to expect the last.

Okay, so I’m not as skilled as Miss Bronte, but this exercise challenged me to pause and allow myself to struggle with cadence. It pushed me beyond my own limited prose habits to seek a higher level of excellence. And it was fun!

Since I learned about this, when I get stuck, I’ll grab an especially prosaic book or open my “Fine Phrases” file and pick one that might fit. Then I plug in my own words and ideas. I’m not strict about adhering to the exact structure, but having a model helps unfetter my thoughts and set my fingers clicking on the keyboard again.

See how useful the "progym" can be? Tune in next week for another lesson from the Greeks.

Don't forget to send me your writing questions in the comments on at my website.

Happy writing!



  1. Really loves the tips I learning from a writer like you, although I am just writing a blog. who day. There is no harm in dreaming!

    1. Thank you, Joy. Blogs count as "writing"! God uses us where we are. But you're right, there is no harm in dreaming!

  2. That's great advice.
    James Scott Bell says something similar when he advises writers to copy down passages of fiction that strikes you. When you start to notice a writer's skill in description, or dialogue, or narrative, etc. you are better able to draw it out in your own writing.
    Not in the sense of copying but in the sense of learning from your betters (and I have lots of those!)

    Natalia Gortova

    1. Hi Natalia. I didn't know James Scott Bell said that. It's so true that we can learn from the greats and incorporate their strengths into our own style. I love it!


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