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I'm reading an article about diary writing in the nineteenth century. It says:

"While a mountain of minutiae could be expected of most amateurs, on the contrary, keeping a diary helped novelist Virginia Woolf (1882– 1941) cut loose. Her hand moved over the page faster than her mind could censor it, sweeping up 'several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated'."

I'm confused about the first sentence. Does "a mountain of minutiae could be expected of most amateurs" mean that most amateurs wrote a lot of details? If so, it doesn't seem to be contrary to what Woolf did. If not, what does it mean?

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Virginia Woolf is a novelist, which most likely means she is an experienced writer. The quote says that you would expect a lot of details of (in this case, from) amateurs. "On the contrary" is used because even Virginia Woolf, a good writer, put in a lot of details.

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While a mountain of minutiae could be expected of most amateurs, on the contrary, keeping a diary helped novelist Virginia Woolf cut loose.

Many sentences in older English prose can simply be reversed to understand their meaning better:

Keeping a diary helped novelist Virginia Woolf cut loose, despite the mountain of minutiae that could be expected of most amateurs.

I'd rewrite the sentence to Modern English like this:

Keeping a diary helped novelist Virginia Woolf become independent, despite the many trivial details that most amateurs write.

Yes, it's implying that at this time she was an amateur.

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    I wouldn't call that "older English".. Besides, it's only due to swapping 'on the contrary' for 'despite' that's showed you too switch it.
    – OJFord
    Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 9:00
  • Thanks for sharing how you use that term. It's sometimes hard to find the right word to use when you don't want to be specific and all the available options sound pretentious or inappropriate. Love hearing about how English speakers from all over the world use the language. Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 16:12
  • so what does the phrase exactly mean? Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 10:29

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