This article was last modified on December 14, 2010.

Wittgenstein on How to Write

Ludwig Wittgenstein was known for many things in the realm of philosophy. He was a bit kooky, but a fantastic analyst and a more than adequate mathematician. He was both a friend and competitor with Bertrand Russell. Both men have been called the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, and either would likely be a fitting recipient of that honor.

But outside of his professional studies, Wittgenstein also kept notebooks and jotted down his thoughts on culture and anything that might come into his life. On more than one occasion, the proper way to write was covered, and I think his words are important and useful for anyone who wishes to write professionally today, in any capacity.

In 1937, Wittgenstein related an incident at home. “I just took some apples out of a paper bag where they had been lying for a long time. I had to cut half off many of them and throw it away. Afterwards when I was copying out a sentence I had written, the second half of which was bad, I at once saw it as a half-rotten apple.” [Wittgenstein: 31e] The thing to notice here is that not only should “rotten” parts of sentences be thrown away, but there is no need to throw the baby out with the bath water — Wittgenstein, by his own admission, felt at least part of the apples worth saving.

Ten years later, he took up the theme again. “Nietzsche writes somewhere that even the best poets and thinkers have written stuff that is mediocre and bad, but have separated off the good material. But it is not quite like that. It’s true that a gardener, along with his roses, keeps manure and rubbish and straw in his garden, but what distinguishes them is not just their value, but mainly their function in the garden. Something that looks like a bad sentence can be the germ of a good one.” [Wittgenstein: 59e] I feel he strays a bit here with the talk of manure and rubbish, but whereas in 1937 he focused on throwing away the “bad”, here he emphasizes setting aside the “good”. A collection of good leads to the best crops, just as the the best sentences lead to the best story, essay or other piece.

The Nietzsche quote to which he refers appears in Human, All Too Human as aphorism 155: “Artists have an interest in others’ believing in sudden ideas, so-called inspirations; as if the idea of a work of art, of poetry, the fundamental thought of a philosophy shines down like a merciful light from heaven. In truth, the good artist’s or thinker’s imagination is continually producing things good, mediocre, and bad, but his power of judgment, highly sharpened and practiced, rejects, selects, joins together; thus we now see from Beethoven’s notebooks that he gradually assembled the most glorious melodies and, to a degree, selected them out of disparate beginnings. The artist who separates less rigorously, liking to rely on his imitative memory, can in some circumstances become a great improviser; but artistic improvisation stands low in relation to artistic thoughts earnestly and laboriously chosen. All great men were great workers, untiring not only in invention but also in rejecting, sifting, reforming, arranging.”

Indeed, while the goal of a good writer or artist is to produce quality, not quantity, sometimes the quantity is the key to quality. For a painter, painting twenty paintings rather than ten may be the key to good fortune: the least best of the twenty could be burned with no one ever to know, leaving only your very best.

For a writer, the key is simply steady output. On a personal note, I produce roughly a minimum of one hour’s worth of writing per day. Sometimes less, sometimes more. In my opinion, the vast bulk of the things I produce are rubbish, or at least still no better than “rough draft” stage. But this is the key. Should my writing gets published, I can keep the rough work to myself until it is ready, if ever it is… shaving off the worst parts, keeping the best. If the best of one piece is small enough, perhaps excise it and transplant it to another.

A writer must take in constant stimulus, but also produce constant output. Not all will be good. Indeed, even the work that gets published may not all be good (the great writers have works that are not masterpieces by any means). But the chance of success, recognition and greatness can only be raised with the increase in output and options to find the hidden treasure in a large body of work — just be smart enough to destroy the evidence of mediocrity!


Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Culture and Value University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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