Nietzsche’s 10 rules for writing with style

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The life of a poet, novelist, critic and the first female psychologist of Russian origin Lou Andreas-Salomé provided fodder for both salacious speculation and intellectual drama in film and on the page for the amount of romantic attention she garnered from European intellectuals like the philosopher Paul Reepoet Rainier Maria Rilkeand Friedrich Nietzsche. The emotionally intense Nietzsche fell in love with Salome, proposed marriage, and when she refused, broke off their relationship in abrupt, Nietzschean fashion.

For her part, Salomé appreciated these friendships so much that she made her own proposal: that she, Nietzsche and Rée write DA Barry to 3 a.m. magazine, “live together in a single house where they could discuss philosophy, literature and art.” The idea outraged Nietzsche’s sister and those around her and may have contributed to the “passionate criticism” of Salome’s 1894 biographical study, Friedrich Nietzsche: The Man and His Works, has received. The “much maligned” work deserves reappraisal, Barry argues, as “a psychological portrait”.

In Nietzsche, wrote Salomé, we see “painful pain and triumphant healing, incandescent intoxication and cold conscience. One feels here the tight entanglement of mutual contradictions; one senses the overflowing and willful plunge of overstimulated and tense energies into chaos, darkness and terror, then an upward thrust towards light and the tenderest moments. We could see this passage as charged with the memory of a friend, with whom she once “climbed Monte Sacro”, she claimed, in 1882, “where he told her about the concept of the Eternal Return” of a calm voice with all the signs of deepest horror.

One must also, perhaps first, see Salome’s impressions as an effect of Nietzsche’s turbulent prose, reaching its apotheosis in his experimentally philosophical novel, Thus spake Zarathustra. As a theoretician of the embodiment of ideas, of their inextricable relationship to the physical and the social, Nietzsche had very precise ideas about literary style, which he communicated to Salomé in an 1882 note entitled “Towards the teaching of styling”. Long before writers began issuing “similar sets of commandments”, writes Maria Popova at Brain PickingsNietzsche “established ten stylistic rules of writing”, which you can find, in their original list form, below.

1. Life is essential: a style must live.

2. The style should suit the specific person you want to communicate with. (The law of mutual relation.)

3. First of all, it is necessary to determine precisely “what-and-what do I wish to say and present”, before being able to write. The writing must be mimicry.

4. Since the writer lacks a lot of the speaker’s means, he generally has to model some kind of very expressive presentation of the need, the written copy will look much paler.

5. The richness of life is revealed through a richness of gestures. You have to learn to feel everything—the length and delay of sentences, the interpunctuation, the choice of words, the pauses, the sequence of arguments—as gestures.

6. Pay attention to the rules! Only people who also have a long breathing time while talking are allowed periods. For most people, the period is a matter of assignment.

7. The style must prove that one believes in an idea; not only that we think it but also that we feel it.

8. The more abstract a truth one wants to teach, the more one must first seduce the senses.

9. The strategy of the good prose writer consists in choosing his means to get closer to poetry but never entering it.

10. It is neither good manners nor shrewd to deprive the reader of the most obvious objections. It is very good manners and very shrewd to leave it to the reader alone to pronounce the ultimate quintessence of our wisdom.

As with all of these prescriptions, we are free to take or leave these rules as we see fit. But we should not ignore them. While Nietzsche perspective has been (mis)interpreted as gratuitous subjectivity, its reverence for antiquity places great value on formal constraints. Its prose, we might say, lies in that tension between Dionysian abandon and Apollonian cool, and its rules deal with what liberal arts teachers once called the Trivia: grammar, rhetoric and logic: the three supports of a moving, expressive, persuasive writing.

Salome was so impressed by these aphoristic rules that she included them in his biography, remarking, “Examining Nietzsche’s style for causes and conditions means much more than examining the mere form in which his ideas are expressed; rather, it means that we can listen to its inner sounds. Isn’t that what great writing should look like?

Salome wrote in his study that “Nietzsche not only mastered language, but also transcended its shortcomings”. (As Nietzsche himself commented in 1886, notes Hugo Drochonhe needed to invent”a language of mine. Nietzsche’s audacious but disciplined writing was complemented by Salome’s audaciously pointed analysis. From her, we can perhaps also glean another principle: “No matter how scurrilous the public attacks on her are,” writes Barry, “particularly from [his sister] Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche during the Nazi period in Germany, Salome did not respond to them.

Note: An earlier version of this article appeared on our site in December 2016.

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Related content:

The Daily Habits of Highly Productive Philosophers: Nietzsche, Marx, and Immanuel Kant

Walter Kaufmann’s Classic Lectures on Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Sartre (1960)

Writing tips by Henry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman and George Orwell

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him on @jdmagness



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