Write Like Lincoln

Like all writers, my writing students struggle with vagueness and wordiness. Inevitably, wordiness is built into our initial drafts because they reflect our speech, and when we speak, we routinely spin our wheels.

As we eliminate written words that don’t contribute to phrases, phrases that don’t contribute to sentences, sentences that don’t contribute to paragraphs, and paragraphs that don’t contribute to the whole, our ideas get traction, and readers better understand what we’re communicating.

In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln, in ways that people still marvel at, only needed 270 words and just over two minutes to reiterate the principles of human equality espoused in the Declaration of Independence, proclaim the Civil War as a struggle for the preservation of the Union, and espouse the principle of human equality for all citizens.

Wordiness is a by-product of laziness. Seven score and ten years ago, it would have been far easier and quicker for Lincoln to write a longer address.

If one of the greatest speeches in U.S. history is the length of this post*, why do I routinely take two or three times as many words to communicate much less lofty things? Because I don’t always make time to, as one Kalispell Montana high school English teacher puts it, “put every word on trial.”

Word limits, whether imposed by one’s self or others, are one of the best ways to learn to write more concisely. Once we learn to write more concisely, we can turn our attention to vagueness. I’d elaborate on that challenge, but I’m out of words.

* a tribute to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, this post is exactly 270 words

3 thoughts on “Write Like Lincoln

  1. Like some, I’m often guilty of anticipating criticisms of what I write and thus elaborate in my work to pre-counter those arguments. Yet I think the subject matter allows one to speak briefly when it is a concept more universal and immediate. Something that has little popularity it seems requires more elaboration but then if it has little popularity will it attract readers to begin with.

    Your brief thoughts on that professor.

    • Eliminating unnecessary words is a means to an end, not an end in itself. If one’s ideas aren’t especially original, detailed, insightful, or moving, it doesn’t matter how economical one’s prose, readers will lose interest. Sometimes I read three to six hundred page books (both fiction and non-fiction) that are so descriptive and engrossing, that I dread being done. Just like in elementary school when watching a movie on the underground railroad or something similarly interesting, I’d turn around every few minutes to see how much film was left in the canister. So the more original, detailed, insightful, or moving one’s writing, the more patient readers will be.

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