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Scaliger once wrote Manilius nesciebat quid scribebat, by which he obviously meant that Manilius did not know what he was writing about.

In English, there is a big difference between "writing something" and "writing about something". It's obvious that Manilius knew he was writing the Astronomicon. (He didn't write it in his sleep!) The issue is that he did not understand Astronomy.

According to Lewis and Short, scribere can take an accusative or an ablative with de (among many other options), and it gives many citations, but it's not clear to me what the distinction might be between them.

My question is what's the difference between aliquid scribo and de aliquo scribo in Latin?

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According to the entry in Lewis and Short, the accusative often refers to what was specifically written as "a line" or "a written composition, writing, treatise, book, work, etc."

In all the examples they give, the prepositional phrase, de + abl., refers to the subject matter of what was written. Often the accusative is used together with the ablative phrase, referring both to the material and the subject matter of the material:

quoniam de re publicā [of the republic] multa quaesierint et scripserint, Cic. Rep. 1, 7, 12

librum de rebus rusticis [of rural matters], Cic. Sen. 15, 54

scripsi etiam versibus tres libros de temporibus meis [of my times], Cic. Fam. 1, 9, 23:

in Catone Majore, qui est scriptus ad te de senectute [of old age], Cic. Lael. 1, 4

scriberem ad te de hoc [of this] plura, si Romae esses, Cic. Att. 6, 4, 11

Hermae tui Pentelici, de quibus [of which things] ad me scripsisti, Cis. Att. 1, 8, 2; 1, 9, 2 et saep.

Although the forgoing resembles the English usage, the accusative is also used in senses that are not quite consistent with English. A notable example of this is "forman et situm agri alicui scribere," which in English would be better translated with the word "describe":

to describe to anyone the form and situation of a farm.

Lewis and Short refer to this sort of usage as "the accessory idea of intellectual action, of written composition of every kind, to write, write down, compose, describe, depict; to draw up, communicate, announce in writing."

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    Would you say that the distinction is the same as between writing something and writing about something in English? – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 10 at 16:56
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    @JoonasIlmavirta, That seems to be the case. At least I haven't noticed any counter examples. Generally, we use the prepositions "of" and "about" to make the distinction clear, but not always. It's not uncommon to say, for example, "He doesn't know what he's saying," and "He doesn't know what he's talking about," meaning the same thing. It both cases, it usually refers to the subject matter rather than the words spoken. It appears to me that that's what's going on with what Scaliger wrote. – Expedito Bipes Apr 10 at 18:34
  • Aufidius praetorius Graecam scribebat historiam is cited. They also rattle off a list of accusatives like bellum and res gestas without context, and further down formam. I'm not 100% sure these are counter examples, but they don't give me great confidence either. Your point about English's lack of consistency is well taken though; you can say "write a history" in English. I hadn't thought of that. – Figulus Apr 10 at 21:59
  • The more I over-analyze the distinctions between English writing and Latin scribere, the more I realize the inconsistencies even in English. I don't know what I was writing about could mean two things: 1) I forgot what I wrote, or 2) I was writing about brain surgery or some other subject in which I am unqualified. – Figulus Apr 10 at 22:08
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    @Figulus. I see your point. Sometimes it has the sense of describing or depicting, in which case, it's not used quite like as in English. I edited my answer to include this broader meaning of the accusative. – Expedito Bipes Apr 11 at 1:27

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