Struggling to write? Take some tips from Charles Darwin
Darwin’s magnum opus, On the Origin of Species, is a masterclass in how to structure research and craft your arguments
By Rosalind White
After his voyage on HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin relocated to the English countryside near Orpington in 1842. There, he would spend the next 17 years working on his magnum opus, On the Origin of Species.
He adopted a surprisingly relaxed routine. A schedule was kept by his son, Francis Darwin, summarising a typical day in his father’s life.
- 7am: Rose and took a short walk, followed by breakfast.
- 8am: Worked in his study; he considered this his best working time.
- 9.30am: Went to drawing room and read his letters, followed by reading aloud of family letters.
- 10.30am: Returned to study for more research.
- Noon: Walk, starting with visit to greenhouse, then down his gravel path known as the “sandwalk”, sometimes accompanied by his dog.
- 12.45pm: Lunch with whole family, which was his main meal of the day.
- 3pm: Rested in his bedroom on the sofa and smoked a cigarette, listened to a novel or other light literature read by Emma Darwin, his wife.
- 4pm: Walked around the sandwalk again.
- 4.30pm: Worked in study, clearing up matters of the day.
- 6pm: Rested again in bedroom with Emma reading aloud.
- 7.30pm: Light high tea while the family dined. In late years he never stayed in the dining room with the men, but retired to the drawing-room with the ladies.
10pm: Left the drawing room and usually in bed by 10.30, but slept badly.
Make an emotional connection
Darwin’s strategy was one of crafted self-possession. He prioritised domestic comfort, time with his family and rambles in the country, rather than intellectual endurance. As a method for writing, it fostered a deep emotional connection with his research – and this intimacy resonates in the lucid flow and appreciative tone of his arguments:
“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds,” he writes. “With birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”
Darwin resisted an automatic, or breakneck approach. The pleasure he took in both his writing and his research is tied up with his ability to take a moment, breathe and witness the world in a wider dimension. This consciousness of place is a method that can be applied to both natural history and to writing. If your writing is made up of frantic action, with no breathing space, you will spawn a confusing muddle of disparate ideas.
In a letter written to HW Bates in 1861 he provides an outline for effective working. Lamenting the sting of labouring “very hard and slowly at every sentence”, he admits that he sometimes finds style “a great difficulty”.
Find your imaginary person
His advice to fellow floundering writers is: “I find it a very good plan, when I cannot get a difficult discussion to please me, to fancy that someone comes into the room and asks me what I am doing, then try at once and explain to the imaginary person what it is all about.”
He also suggests that a writer should power through their piece briskly to construct a kind of skeleton argument. Equally, however, he is cautious to prepare for counter-arguments without appearing too dogmatic. On the Origin of Species has been described as “one long provocation in the guise of being none”.
US writer Adam Gopnik, who wrote a book on Darwin, notes that the habit of “sympathetic summary” is essential to his rhetorical power.
“All of what remain today as the chief objections to his theory are introduced by Darwin himself, fairly and accurately, and in a spirit of almost panicked anxiety — and then rejected not by bullying insistence but by specific example, drawn from the reservoir of his minute experience of life… [On the Origin of Species] is not only a statement of a thesis; it is a book of answers to questions that no one had yet asked.”
The survival of his thesis was won partly because of intellectual empathy, rather than an ugly fight to the death played out in the public arena. Darwin teaches us that – in an effort to make sure that your work does not go the way of the dodo – it’s essential to adjust your methodology and anticipate arguments in order to survive.
But in the spirit of this philosophy, it is important to remember that such advice is worthless if you lack the tenacity to actually write the thing in the first place. So write. But be patient. After all, Darwin himself took more than two decades to finish his book.