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: 1
You write with ease, to shew your breeding;
But easy writing’s vile hard reading.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 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. ↩