Definition and Examples of Didactic Writing

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

didactic writing
In 1824, the American Tract Society (ATS) warned that "a plain didactic essay" may put readers to sleep. "There must be something to allure the listless to read, and this can only be done by blending entertainment with instruction" (quoted by Steven Epley in Encyclopedia of the Essay, 1997). (Alex and Laila/Getty Images)

The term didactic writing refers to texts that are intended or inclined to teach, preach, or advise. Didactic writing often makes use of the second-person point of view. Noun: didacticism.

Highly regarded writers of didactic essays from the Victorian era include Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859), Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), Thomas Macaulay (1800-1859), and John Ruskin (1819-1900).

William Golding's Lord of the Flies and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, says Robert S.

Vuckovich, "are fictional works that . . . escape from their narrative design, aspiring to the status of didactic or ethical argument" ("The Art of Rhetorical Deception and Modification" in Rhetoric, Uncertainty, and the University as Text, 2007).

In present-day English, the adjective didactic is often used in a pejorative sense, implying artless, heavy-handed preachiness.

See Examples and Observations below. See also:

From the Greek, "to teach, educate"

Examples and Observations

  • "What . . . do we mean by 'didactic literature'? It can be argued that every text in the early modern period had the potential to be viewed as didactic. Indeed, when Sir Philip Sidney conceived of reading of any sort as the best grounding for 'the trade of our lives,' he was far from alone in his commitment to this catholic interpretation. . . . [W]e have chosen . . . to concentrate mainly on those texts which were explicitly framed to instruct through the material they contained: amongst these are what we might today label 'how-to' books. Such books made their claims to educate and inspire from the outset, and were constructed both textually and physically, to achieve those goals: the ideal didactic text of this sort was ideally 'a Manual that shall neither burden the hands to hold, the Eyes in reading, nor the mind in conceiving.'"
    (Natasha Glaisyer and Sara Pennell, Introduction, Didactic Literature in England, 1500-1800, Ashgate, 2003)
  • The Didactic Tradition
    "[The] didactic tradition . . . is an ancient and respected one, starting, we must assume, well before the advent of writing. Long before the first Aesopic fables were written down, tales were told and proverbs were prescribed by community elders, parents, and others who had reason to instruct or advise. One of the age-old functions of all folklore is education, and performers who would amuse us are just as often eager to teach us as well. On the other hand, there are those who would argue that 'literature'true artis never utilitarian, never purposeful, that writing intended to advise or persuade is communication or rhetoric but not literature.

    "Still, the line is a fine one, and the distinction is a matter of convention. Ancient myths, such as the story of Oedipus or the story of Noah and the ark or the many Native American stories of Coyote and the establishment of human practices—no less than Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have a Dream' speech or Henry David Thoreau's 'Civil Disobedience—involve an obvious aesthetic dimension; they are moving or entertaining as well as instructive. The didactic tradition has had to present itself in a palatable form and remain consistently appealing to its audience; otherwise, the didactic tendency would have died out long ago."
    (Sandra K. Dolby, Self-Help Books: Why Americans Keep Reading Them. University of Illinois Press, 2005)
  • The Personal Essay and the Didactic Essay
    "One kind of essay, called the personal essay, seems to be the natural overflow of the writer's feelings. Another kind, called the didactic essay, seems to be the result of the writer's set purpose. In the personal essay, the writer takes the attitude of a confidential friend, and in setting forth his opinion indulges in much self-revelation. In the didactic essay, the writer takes the attitude of an instructor, and gives information and expresses opinion with an air of authority which is not offensive, but which is the natural dignity of the person who is talking about something concerning which he really is an authority, on account of his personal experience with the subject. The writer of the personal essay is at his best when he is playful and humorous; the writer of the didactic essay, when he is logical. In the personal essay the interest centers chiefly in the writer's personality; in the didactic, it centers in the proposition or subject-matter. In the personal essay the opinion or proposition is delicately suggested; in the didactic essay, it is flatly stated. Both forms of the essay are good art.

    "The Didactic Essay.
    A writer with a clear mind, one which naturally acts logically, will be apt to develop so strong an opinion that he will be rather serious in setting it forth, and will naturally use the didactic or logical method, and simple, direct, and vigorous expression. Such a writer makes one clearly defined theme the nucleus of his essay, and chooses only such material as is appropriate for expanding that theme, for detaining the reader's mind upon it, and for directing the reader's attention to its different aspects, until it becomes as interesting a subject of thought to the reader as it is to the writer. He aims at careful plan. Divisions are few and distinct. The whole leaves a sense of completeness. The reader feels that just the points are given which are necessary to make a satisfactory whole; he does not feel that something may have been forgotten, or that anything could be left out. The author seems to have seen before he started, the limits within which he would keep, and so completes a circle of thought. The art of this kind of essay consists in the choice of illustrations, and the way they are applied. All the facts and illustrations stand in perfectly clear relation to the theme, they are themselves full of suggestiveness and beauty and are so arranged as to give them their greatest effectiveness. It is selection of material, combination of material, and style of language, which count in this kind of literary composition."
    (Angeline Parmenter Carey, The Reader's Basis. Echo Press, 1908)

    Pronunciation: di-DAK-tik