The art of nonfiction: a guide for writers and readers - By Ayn Rand & Robert Mayhew


To all the practitioners—and to all the discouraged, might-have- been practitioners—of the art of nonfiction writing, the author of this book offers an invaluable service: she de-mysticizes writing.

The process of writing is widely regarded as an impenetrable mystery. Good writing, it is believed, is the product of some inborn ability, which can be neither objectively defined nor systematically learned. Like ardent religionists who insist that the road to truth is open only to those who are visited by divine revelation, many teachers of writing claim that the path to effective prose can be traversed only if one is struck by the inexplicable thunderbolt of inspiration.

Ayn Rand rejects this idea. She maintains that writing is a rational sphere, governed by rationally identifiable principles.

“Writing is no more difficult a skill than any other, such as engineering,” she says. “Like every human activity, it requires practice and knowledge. But there is nothing mystical to it.” Since writing is essentially the act of communicating your thoughts clearly, it can be done competently by virtually everyone: “Any person who can speak English grammatically can learn to write nonfiction.... What you need for nonfiction writing is what you need for life in general: an orderly method of thinking.”

In analyzing the process of writing, her starting point—unlike that of other theorists—is not the content of the writer’s mind, but the source of such content: the facts of reality. On this philosophic issue, Ayn Rand was an unyielding advocate of the Aristotelian view, which she described as the primacy of existence—the view that the universe exists independent of anyone’s awareness of it, that the function of consciousness is to grasp, not to create, reality, and that the absolutism of existence is what ought to shape one’s thoughts (and actions).

This is the premise that underlies her approach to writing. Repudiating the standard, subjectivist perspective, she holds that writing is to be treated as an objective science: “Whenever you have a problem, whether you are writing an article or building a doghouse, do not look inside for the solution. Do not ask: ‘How do I do it? Why don’t I know it?’ Look outside and ask: ‘What is the nature of the thing I want to do?’ ” From this, she proceeds to discuss the nature of writing and its consequent requirements, such as the strict need to delimit one’s subject and theme, or the indispensability of an outline. She provides clear, perceptive principles about the psychological process of writing (such as the different roles played by the conscious mind and the subconscious), along with methodical advice to guide you through the process (from getting ideas, to choosing your subject and theme, to polishing your draft).

The primacy of extrospection over introspection leads to another important principle of writing. Ayn Rand urges writers to direct their attention solely to their work—to what is needed to do it well, to how to solve problems that arise—but not to its supposed meaning for one’s worth as a person: “If you have difficulty with writing, do not conclude that there is something wrong with you. Writing should never be a test of self-esteem.”

Of course, according to the mystical viewpoint, the writer’s self-esteem will always be at issue. If writing is a matter of being zapped with inspiration by a gracious muse, the absence of such inspiration must indicate unworthiness on the writer’s part.

One of the worst consequences of that viewpoint is the mental torture it inflicts upon writers. If the content of your consciousness arises causelessly, independent of reality, then writing is a journey not into the unknown, but into the unknowable. If there are no firm rules by which to proceed—if one must stare passively at an empty page or empty screen, with mind idling, waiting desperately for the muse to hit the accelerator—then writing must be laden with anxiety and guilt. It is tantamount to trying to design a computer with no principles of electronics or mechanics, only the hope of somehow being moved by the right “spirit.”

Since writing should be regarded as a science, Ayn Rand says, the job of the writer is at root no different from that of the scientist. “It would never occur to a scientist to focus partly on his experiment and partly on his self-esteem or future fame. (If it does, he is a neurotic and will probably not be heard from.) He has to focus exclusively on his experiment. Nothing else is relevant. The same applies to writing, only it is harder because it is a