Easy Writing’s Vile Hard Reading

Richard Brinsley Sheridan? Lord Byron? Ernest Hemingway? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There are two complementary and intertwined statements about reading and writing that I would like you to investigate:

1) Easy writing results in hard reading.
2) Easy reading requires hard writing.

Many different phrases have been used to express these two thoughts, and sometimes the phrases are confused with one another. The formulations above were selected to make the two concepts more straightforward. Here is my gloss of the first: If one composes a passage in an easygoing thoughtless manner then the result will be difficult to read. My gloss of the second is: One must work hard to compose a passage that a reader will be able to grasp readily.

Various well-known names have been connected to these adages including: Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Lord Byron, Samuel Johnson, Maya Angelou, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Hood, William Makepeace Thackeray, Ernest Hemingway, and Wallace Stegner. Would you please explore the provenance of these sayings?

Quote Investigator: This entry will focus on the first maxim listed above. A separate entry for the second maxim with the title “Easy Reading Is Hard Writing” is located here.

The prominent Irish poet Richard Brinsley Sheridan composed “Clio’s Protest or, the Picture Varnished” in 1771 and it was distributed in 1772. Sheridan’s name was not listed in the original publication which harshly satirized the efforts of a poetaster. The word “show” was spelled “shew” in the following excerpt:[ref] Year: 1772 (Date of introductory letter January 26, 1772), Title: The Rival Beauties; A Poetical Contest, Poem Information: Clio’s Protest; Or, The Picture Varnished, Addressed to The Honourable Lady M-rg-r-t F-rd-ce, Start Page: 5, Quote Page: 16, Imprint: London: Printed for W. Griffin, at Garrick’s Head, in Catharine-Street, Strand; and sold by R. Cruttwell, in St. James’s-Street, Bath, Database: ECCO Eighteenth Century Collections Online.[/ref]

You write with ease, to shew your breeding;
But easy writing’s vile hard reading.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1786 Sheridan’s poem was reprinted in “The New Foundling Hospital for Wit: Being a Collection of Fugitive Pieces, in Prose and Verse, Not in Any Other Collection”, but his name was still not directly attached to the work.[ref] 1786, The New Foundling Hospital for Wit: Being a Collection of Fugitive Pieces, in Prose and Verse, Not in Any Other Collection, Poem: Clio’s Protest or, the Picture Varnished, Addressed to the Honourable Lady M-rg-r-t F-rd-ce, By Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Start Page 117, Quote Page 130, Printed for J. Debrett, Opposite Burlington House in Piccadilly, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

In 1818 “Beppo, A Venetian Story” by the famous romantic poet Lord Byron was published, and he lamented that he had not acquired “the art of easy writing”. Boldface has been added to excerpts:[ref] 1818, Beppo, A Venetian Story (by Lord Byron), Stanza: XLVIII, Quote Page 25, Published by John Murray, Albemarle-Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Oh that I had the art of easy writing
What should be easy reading! could I scale
Parnassus, where the Muses sit inditing
Those pretty poems never known to fail,
How quickly would I print (the world delighting)
A Grecian, Syrian, or Assyrian tale;
And sell you, mix’d with western sentimentalism,
Some samples of the finest Orientalism.

Lord Byron has been credited with both of the adages under examination, and QI believes that the verse above was probably the source of the confusion. Byron used the phrases “easy reading” and “easy writing”, but he did not mention “hard reading” or “hard writing”.

Finally, in 1819 an edition of “Clio’s Protest” did include an ascription to “The Late Right Honourable R. B. Sheridan” who had died in 1816. The introduction stated that the poem was given to an editor for publication by Sheridan himself “as far back as the year 1771”.[ref] 1819, Clio’s Protest; Or, “The Picture” Varnished, with Other Poems by The Late Right Honourable R. B. Sheridan (Richard Brinsley Sheridan), Quote Page 27, Printed for Joseph Arnould, London. (Google Books Full View) link[/ref]

In an 1821 issue of “The New Monthly Magazine” an altered version of Sheridan’s couplet was designated an epigram, though his name was not mentioned. The word “vile” was replaced by the censored word “d—-” which represented either “damn” or “damned”. An accompanying footnote acknowledged a work called “The Pic-nic”:[ref] 1821, The New Monthly Magazine, Reading and Writing, Start Page 267, Quote Page 268, Published by Henry Colburn and Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Witness, for instance, the numbers, who, according to the epigram,
“Write with ease, to shew their breeding:”
but it is true that the next line intimates that
“Easy writing’s d— hard reading,”*
* The Pic-nic.

Also in 1821 a book reviewer in “The Edinburgh Review” complained that some authors “appear to bestow but little pains upon the preparation of the vilest composition”. The critic then employed an instance of the adage without attribution:[ref] 1821 October, The Edinburgh Review, Or Critical Journal, Volume 36, Review: Article V: OEuvres Completes de Demosthene et d’Eschine, en Grec et en Français, Start Page 82, Quote Page 82, Printed by the Heirs of David Willison for Archibald Constable and Company, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

. . . how apt easy writing is to prove hard reading.

In 1825 a hagiographic portrait was published entitled “Memoirs of the Life of the Right Honourable Richard Brinsley Sheridan” by Thomas Moore. The author discussed the couplet in “Clio’s Protest”, and presented a version with “curst” substituted for “vile”:[ref] 1825, Memoirs of the Life of the Right Honourable Richard Brinsley Sheridan by Thomas Moore, Volume 1 of 2, Third Edition, Quote Page 52, Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, Paternoster-Row, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

We find here, too, the source of one of those familiar lines, which so many quote without knowing whence they come;—one of those stray fragments, whose parentage is doubtful, but to which (as the law says of illegitimate children) “pater est populus.”

“You write with ease, to show your breeding,
But easy writing’s curst hard reading.”

In 1826 the editor of “The London Literary Gazette” replied to a correspondent named E. E. and combined wordplay using the initial “E” with an instance of the maxim:[ref] 1826 May 13, The London Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, To Correspondents, Start Page 302, Quote Page 302, Column 3, Printed by James Moyes, London, Published for the Proprietors at the Literary Gazette Office, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

We have only to remind E. E. of the quotation, “Your E’sy writing’s cursed hard reading.”

In 1826 “The North American Review” printed a caustic evaluation of a poem. The reviewer acknowledged Sheridan while employing a concise instance of the saying with the word “vile” omitted:[ref] 1826 April, The North American Review, Review: Article III: Poem delivered before the Connecticut Alpha of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, September 13, 1825 By James G. Percival: Percival’s Poem, Start Page 317, Quote Page 330, Published by Frederick T. Gray, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

After a few pages like this, most readers would be inclined to give up the study in despair; and if called upon to remark how wonderful it is, that it should have been written in so short a time; they might be expected to reply, Very true, but Sheridan’s remark is true also, ‘Easy writing is hard reading.’

In 1832 an article in the “Pennsylvania Inquirer” mentioned the remarkably prolific Spanish playwright and poet Lope de Vega. The journalist used the adage to comment critically on some of his prodigious outpouring:[ref] 1832 October 29, Pennsylvania Inquirer and Morning Journal (Philadelphia Inquirer), Sir Walter Scott (From the New England Galaxy), Quote Page 1, Column 7, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

This easy writing turned out, of course, a good deal of it “curs’d hard reading,” as the song says…

In 1835 an unattributed instance appeared in the “National Gazette” of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the word “very” was used instead of “vile”, “curst”, or “cursed”:[ref] 1835 June 25, National Gazette, (Untitled article), Quote Page 1, Column 2, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

Everybody recollects the pithy remark that easy writing is very hard reading, but little value seems to be attached to it by the mass of writers at the present day, if we may judge from their practice.

In 1847 a passage in “The Evening Post” of New York City invoked Sheridan’s name, but his words were remembered imprecisely:[ref] 1847 June 23, Evening Post, (Book Review of Washington and His Generals by J. T. Headly), Quote Page 2, Column 2, New York, New York. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

“We quote from memory, but believe it was the man who made the one best speech, the one best repartee, and wrote the one best play, of his time—Richard Brinsley Sheridan—who said that ‘easy writing is very hard reading.'”

In 1868 a newspaper columnist quoted in the “Cleveland Leader” uncertainly assigned the maxim to Lord Byron:[ref] 1868 January 23, Cleveland Leader, Daily Leader, Olive Logan (New York Correspondent of the Cincinnati Commercial), Quote Page 3, Column 3, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

Wasn’t it Byron who said the easy writing was—well, I believe he swore about it, and dropped an adjective before hard reading. But I can tell you, in confidence, I am at work on a novel—a huge, two volume affair—that is to make or break me.

In 1875 an article in “The Huddersfield College Magazine” also pointed to the eminent romantic poet:[ref] 1875, Huddersfield College Magazine, Volume 3, Cheerfulness, Start Page 145, Quote Page 147, J. E. Wheatley and Co., Huddersfield, United Kingdom. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Byron justly said that “easy writing” was “cursed hard reading;”

In 1947 Samuel Putnam published “Paris Was Our Mistress and Memoirs of a Lost & Found Generation”, and the author described a meeting with Ernest Hemingway that occurred shortly after “The Sun Also Rises” had appeared circa 1926. Hemingway employed the saying:[ref] 1970 (1947 Copyright), Paris Was Our Mistress and Memoirs of a Lost & Found Generation by Samuel Putnam, Chapter 5: From a Latin Quarter Sketchbook, Section 2: Hard-Boiled Young Man Going Places (Ernest Hemingway), Quote Page 128, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, Illinois; Arcturus Books Edition, Reprinted from The Viking Press. (Verified with scans)[/ref]

Apothegms dropped from his lips as from those of a brilliant sophomore doing his best not to appear too brilliant, even to the extent of resorting to a copybook triteness. “Easy writing makes hard reading.” That was one of the things he said which I have always remembered. He said it a number of times.

In modern times, the maxim’s connection to Ernest Hemingway is still recalled. For example, the following was tweeted in 2009:[ref] Tweet, From: Mary Ellen James @BetterWriters, Time: 6:09 PM, Date: April 30, 2009, Text: Easy writing makes hard reading.- Ernest Hemingway #writers #smbiz. (Accessed on twitter.com on November 4, 2014) link [/ref]

Easy writing makes hard reading.- Ernest Hemingway #writers #smbiz

In conclusion, QI believes that Richard Brinsley Sheridan should be credited with the couplet disseminated in 1772. The attribution to Lord Byron was apparently based on a misreading of his 1818 work “Beppo”. There is substantive evidence that Hemingway spoke the adage after it was already in circulation.

Images Notes: Hand writing from annazuc on Pixabay. Woman reading from BibBornem on Pixabay. Richard Brinsley Sheridan portrait from “Memoirs of the Life of the Right Honourable Richard Brinsley Sheridan” by Thomas Moore. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Laurelyn Collins and Eric Feezell whose inquiries led QI to initiate three explorations of interlinked sayings. Special thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake who accessed the 1772 citation.)

Update History: On November 10, 2018 the Samuel Putnam citation about Hemingway was added.

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