Analyzing Lincoln’s voice

Abraham Lincoln had a powerful and distinctive writing voice, best heard in his “Gettysburg Address”:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met here on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled, here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here.

It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Ten sentences, 272 words of indelible prose. What devices make this voice distinctive?

Lincoln begins with archaic language and phasing, not “In 1776” or “87 years ago,” but “Four score and seven years ago.” “Brought forth, upon this continent” has the sweep and ring of the King James Bible. He ends his first paragraph by quoting Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal,” echoed in the closing: “this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln uses simple diction throughout, full of Biblical language: “conceive,” “dedicate,” “devotion,” “resolve,” “perish.” He repeats simple words: “here” seven times, “we” ten, “us” four, “nation” five, and “dedicate” five, creating a sense of unity. His powerful verbs are full of actions. He avoids contractions.

Mostly he writes sentences that branch to the right, with a few short insertions, creating a flowing rhythm and great clarity. His sentences turn on parallel phrasing:

“any nation so conceived, and so dedicated”
“we are engaged…. We are met …. We have come….”
“we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow this ground.”
“It is for us…. It is rather for us….”
“what we say here, … what they did here.”
“government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Most of his sentences are roughly the same length, until the last one, which is 84 words long, almost a third of whole address. The shorter sentences build up a rolling rhythm, and that final long sentence delivers his message in powerful, memorable form.

Lincoln mixes imagery of birth and death with references to land and ground and fields, appropriate for a funeral oration.

Forgetting for a moment what we know about Lincoln, what personality emerges from these devices? I would call it strong and determined, simple yet formal, patriotic and sincere, clear, and absolutely compelling. As with Jefferson, readers want to follow anyone who talks and writes like that.

[What personality traits do you perceive behind this famous address?]

Published in: on October 31, 2009 at 11:33 am  Leave a Comment  

Ways to revise

Most writers revise by crawling through their text word by word, changing anything they don’t like. That’s a perfectly fine method, but it’s slow and only improves local effects. In fact, many writers revise heavily as they draft, and that’s why they’re so slow, particularly since they keep revising things they’ve already revised. That’s the slowest way: just keep writing sentences and revising them and changing anything the revision damages.

What’s the fastest way? You draft the entire piece with no revision whatever, and then revise the whole thing once. Get it down, then get it right. Few writers do it that way because they can’t stand to leave anything wrong or misspelled or poorly phrased on the screen. Writing with the screen off helps them see that they can draft without revising. I draft at my top speed and then revise separately to compensate for my poor typing. (I type four words a minute finished, draft at 25!)

If you revise as a separate step, you’re making changes to a complete piece, rather than just part of it. Each sentence gets revised with all the other sentences in mind, which helps unify the whole thing.

Instead of starting small, at the sentence level, you can revise the structure of the piece first. A lot of phrasing problems vanish when you figure out first what you want to say and how. Rapid drafting gets you there fast. Rearrange first for the structure you want, then fix the transitions, and finally the sentences.

Some writers get a friend (or two or ten) to read their draft and tell them what works and what needs work. Such test readers point out assumptions and holes we can’t see. Oddly enough, the less expert test reader is more likely to see the problems by experiencing them as a reader.

Another strategy involves reading a printed version aloud, putting a tick in the margin beside anything that bumps you, anything you want to change. Then you have a marginal index of everything that needs work.

Finally, you need to stop revising when the piece is finished. At a certain point, further revision makes a piece heavy and less readable. As a writing coach, I find that quick revisers like their pieces better.

[Let’s hear your revision tricks.]

Published in: on October 28, 2009 at 8:45 am  Comments (2)  

Revising good sentences

Let’s revise a sentence in multiple ways to see what effects we can achieve. Here’s the sentence: “Attribution is the writer’s primary device for indicating the validity of information.”

I think like that, but I don’t have to write that way. We phrase our sentences to fit our audiences, the rest of the piece, and what we want to say.

If you read that sentence aloud, it flows, and the meaning is perfectly clear. A fine sentence, if readers know the technical term “attribution,” and if they would know for sure whether “validity” refers to truth or accuracy. This sentence makes several assumptions that would be clear to journalists or academics, depending on the context, but maybe not to others.

Let’s shift the focus from the writer to the reader: “Attribution is the reader’s primary device for judging the validity of information.” This version features the receiver, but we still have problems with technical terms.

Let’s try again, defining “attribution” and “validity”: “Knowing where information came from is the readers’ primary means for judging if it’s true.” We can make the sentence more immediate by changing the past-tense verb “came” to the present tense “comes”: “Knowing where information comes from is the readers’ primary means for judging if it’s true.” That last phrase, “if it’s true” chooses truth over accuracy, and we could blur the distinction by saying “if it’s valid.” (As an explainer, I prefer to keep things unblurred, but sometimes….)


Remember our basic diagram of emphasis by position? In the latest sentence, the readers sit in the unemphatic middle. Let’s emphasize the readers and attribution: “Readers judge the validity of information based on where it came from.”

Since this exercise is about the readers’ knowledge, let’s get that into the sentence: “Readers judge the validity of information by knowing where it comes from.” Less abstract without the phrase “based on.”

Our sentence is still a little academic and formal, so let’s aim it directly at the reader rather than the writer: “How do you know something is true? First, by asking where the information came from.”

All of these sentences are good sentences, and they all say essentially the same thing. But they say it in different ways, with differing effects. Which one would you choose? It depends on what you’re trying to say, and how you want your readers to understand it.

[Got an interesting sentence you played with?]

Published in: on October 27, 2009 at 10:15 am  Leave a Comment  

Writing without plagiarizing

The word “plagiarism” comes from the Latin “plagiarius,” ‘kidnapper.’ Plagiarism is stealing other people’s precious children, their words and ideas. Writers consider their words and ideas as part of their self, so we could call plagiarism a form of identity theft.

Plagiarism is presenting another person’s words and ideas as our own. It’s borrowing without credit.

We use other people’s words and ideas all the time, often unknowingly. I suspect that phrase just above, “borrowing without credit,” came from somebody else, but I don’t recognize it, and so can’t credit it. Borrowing is fine, as long as you do it honestly and acknowledge the source.

One form of plagiarism is publishing a whole work by someone else as your own. If the piece is copyrighted, you’ve violated that person’s legal rights, and made yourself subject to a civil suit. Such wholesale plagiarism is rare, luckily, and a form of fraud.

Another is taking bits and pieces of a work and splicing them into your own writing without identifying the origin. This common practice has become epidemic in our age of cut-and-paste and the Internet. It’s usually easy to spot, because the voice changes twice, before and after the insertion. Readers notice when you sound like Maureen Dowd in one paragraph, George Will in the next, and Herman Melville after that, interspersed with bumpy sentences.

A third form, called “patchwriting,” very common in schools, involves taking a passage and changing a few words, moving things around, deleting a little, etc., in other words, editing, again without credit.

All of these practices are literary sins against the integrity of another writer’s identity, thought, and effort.

Why do writers plagiarize? Mostly they lack confidence in their own ability to do creditable work. Or they’re having a dry spell and simply can’t write at all. Or they drown in envy of other writers’ success. Or they get in a hurry and take shortcuts. Or they want higher esteem, usually a grade, than their own talents and efforts deserve.

Why shouldn’t you plagiarize? For the same reason you don’t swipe other people’s children: it’s dishonest and destructive. Destructive not just to the people you steal from, but also to you. Plagiarism becomes a habit and progressively lowers your self-esteem, leading to more plagiarism and worse writing.You cheat yourself as well as the person you plagiarize. If you borrow others’ work, you don’t learn anything. You don’t master the information, and you don’t improve as a wordsmith by stealing words.

Nowadays, in our era of search engines and online companies that specialize in spotting copying, plagiarists almost always get caught. If nobody catches them, they do it again, and again, until they do get caught. All the plagiarists I know have a record of getting away with it, until they didn’t.

Plagiarists, regardless of their motives, become outcasts, ranking just slightly above kidnappers.

How can your prevent plagiarism in your own writing?

First, take careful notes, clearly identifying sources. I write my initials, “DF,” in my notebook margin to distinguish what I said and thought from what the source offered. Use consistent systems that will remain clear to you (and perhaps to a jury) long after publication.

Second, be aware of when you’re quoting and when you’re paraphrasing. Mark quotes clearly with indentation or quotation marks, and attribute so the readers know where the quote came from. Accompany paraphrases with clear attribution. Where you’ve borrowed just the idea and none of the words, you still include the source. Transparency pays off in reader trust.

Third, tell your readers exactly where the material came from. Besides being honest, it lets your readers follow up on things that strike them. Every professional organization has its own system of citation, which you should use in their publications. Merely using their format marks you as a member of their club, and makes their editors more likely to accept your work.

Richard A. Posner’s The Little Book of Plagiarism (New York: Pantheon, 2007) clarifies the legal and ethical issues.

[Care to share any problems with plagiarism?]

Published in: on October 20, 2009 at 12:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

The rest of this book

This blog is the rough draft of a book on how to write your own way, and in your own voice. It shows you how to take many of the techniques described and combine them into your own writing process that works for you, that uses your strengths and avoids your weaknesses. It also shows you how to decide what kind of writing voice you want, how to create it, and how to modify it.

Today I read over the 240 pages I have posted, and I can see that the end of this project approaching. I have written the posts as their subjects popped into my head, mostly in response to pieces I’ve read. I’m normally a PLANNER, and this sort of free-form lack of planned structure seems strange to me, but I think it has given my writing a spontaneity and punch it sometimes lacks. (I wasn’t sure how to spell “spontaneity,” so I used my wife Joan’s trick of typing the word into Google, which gave me a “Do you mean…” response.) Now I’m going back to planner mode to figure out the whole structure and subject matters of the finished book. I will fill in the holes by writing about things I’ve left out or just not thought about yet.

Many of my readers have responded with their own techniques to add to the collection, and I am grateful to all of you. Now I want to ask a favor. To make this book more useful, I want to know what you want to know about writing. What about writing drives you crazy? What do you struggle with? If you’re an editor, what do you need to tell your writers? What techniques do you know that you would like to read about?

You can let me know either in e-mail [] or by contributing comments to the blog itself. I appreciate any suggestions you give me.

Published in: on October 15, 2009 at 6:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

Writing short for Twitter

Jon Winokur invited me to contribute to his Twitter feed, @AdviceToWriters. I decided to write a tweet about a technique I use as a writing coach to help writers who stall while drafting, or even worse, become paralyzed by writers’s block. I advise them never to think of themselves with their fingers touching keys, unless they’re writing autobiography or a memoir. Otherwise they’re off the subject while they’re typing.

And when you think about yourself while writing, your Internal Critic grabs the opportunity to undermine your confidence more he usually does. If yours is anything like mine, he screams things like this:

What a stupid sentence!
The one before it is worse!!
You don’t know what you’re talking about!!!
If you publish this, people will laugh at you!!!!
You’re wasting your life writing this crap!!!!!
You’re no good!!!!!!

Notice his sequence: from a rough sentence to career failure to worthlessness. If you let him keep that up, you’ll give up in despair, maybe even leave our profession.

So how do I say all that in 140 characters and spaces? Actually, 132 because I have to leave room for six letters (d-o-n-f-r-y) and two spaces. Here’s my first try:
“Never think about yourself with your fingers on the keys, unless you’re writing autobiography or a memoir. Otherwise you’re off the subject. DON FRY.”

Jon said that was too long (148) and shortened it:
“Nvr think about yrself wth yr fingers on the keys, unless yr writing autobiography or a memoir. Otherwise yr off the subject. DON FRY” (133).

But I like words too much to abbreviate them, so I tried this version:
“Never think about yourself with your fingers on the keys, unless you’re writing autobiography. Don Fry.” Much shorter, 102, but I’ve left out the Internal Critic. So adios “unless you’re writing autobiography or a memoir” to make room for the monster.

Then I tried a telegraphic, guru-ish version:
“Never think of yourself with your fingers on the keys. Don Fry.” A count of 62, but I’ve lost the reason for not thinking about yourself.

I could gain a little room by giving up “fingers on the keys,” but the visual image makes the advice memorable. And I can’t give up the monster because every writer struggles with one. So here’s the next version:
“Avoid thinking about yourself with your fingers on the keys, or your Internal Critic will start talking about failure. Don Fry.” 126, but flat and clumsy.

Let’s streamline the sentence:
“Thinking about yourself with your fingers on the keys starts your Internal Critic whispering about failure. Don Fry.” 115 and better, but your Internal Critic is always there. He doesn’t “start,” and I don’t like his verb.

One more try:
“Thinking about yourself with your fingers on the keys lets your Internal Critic rave about failure. Don Fry.” 107, bingo, done.

Notice what I didn’t do. I didn’t get there by shaving a letter, a syllable, or a word here and there. When I finally got to what I wanted to say, the count worked. If it had too many words, I revised what I wanted to say or how to say it. Here’s the principle: achieve brevity by selection, not compression.

[Let’s hear about your struggles with Twitter.]

Published in: on October 13, 2009 at 4:11 pm  Comments (4)  

Overcoming Writer’s Block

Almost all of us experience writer’s block sooner or later, although some people never do. It’s the inability to write at all, as opposed to being temporarily stuck somewhere in the writing process, usually in the DRAFTING stage.

Some people deny there is such a thing as writer’s block, but I’ve been there several times, and can guarantee you it’s real and painful. You feel like you have nothing to say, or that your writing is hopelessly inept, or that everything you’ve ever written is junk, or all of the above. Once into writer’s block, you can’t see any way out; you’re doomed. Your literary career is over; you might have to sell insurance or become a tunnel guard.

If you get depressed enough, you might take the easy way out: plagiarism. I’ll write a post later on plagiarism, but essentially it’s submitting somebody else’s work as your own. Resist this urge. Plagiarism is not just dishonest; it’s also usually fatal to careers. Sooner or later, you’ll get caught, especially in our age of universal search capabilities. Then you’re a pariah.

What causes writer’s block? From the list of symptoms in that second paragraph above, you can see that it’s failure of confidence. You just suddenly realize that you can’t do it anymore, and when you sit down to type, nothing comes out. As a writing coach, I’ve helped a lot of writers, including Julia Child, dig their way out of writer’s block. Here’s how to save yourself.

Since failure of confidence causes writer’s block, restoring confidence pulls you out of it. You think about something you’re written in the past that really worked, that people praised, that you were proud of. Then you recall the whole history of that piece, how you did it, beginning with the idea, all the way through publication. Then you ask yourself what worked in that piece and how you made it work.

And then you say to yourself, “I could do it then, so I can do it now.” And then you type something, anything, without judging it. And praise yourself and start writing again.

How do you prevent blockage in the first place? One way to think about writer’s block is that your Internal Critic finally screams so loud that he shuts you down. Mine never yells below 110 decibels, taunts like “You’ve wasted your entire life writing talentless drivel! Everybody knows you’re an idiot! Stop inflicting yourself on people!”

Our Internal Critics keep twanging our failure button. Jon Favreau, President Obama’s chief speechwriter, said, “If you start thinking about what’s at stake, it can get paralyzing.” When you think about what’s at stake, you’re thinking about failing. At the deepest level, you’re thinking about yourself. Yourself failing.

Of course, you can’t not think about something. If you try to think about not failing, your Internal Critic salivates. But you can think about something else.

So you never think of yourself with your fingers on the keys, unless you’re writing autobiography or a memoir. Otherwise, you’re off the subject. You think about the subject you’re trying to write, not about yourself writing it. Say things out loud like these:

Type to the end. (I use this one a lot.)
What do I want to say here?
This is just a draft.

If all else fails, turn the screen off and just type.

[Had any experience overcoming writer’s block?]

Published in: on October 12, 2009 at 3:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

Emergency writing

People who think that all writing is emergency writing are correct, at least for their work. Their methods turn every piece into a last-minute disaster. They leap in and type and make a mess.

But we all get into a real writing emergency now and then. You have 20 minutes to knock out 800 words. How do you do it? Several ways, depending on how you think and how you work.

I’m a PLANNER, meaning I plan what to do, and then I do it. I write an outline and follow it; I also type badly. So I spend the first two minutes deciding what to say and how to say it, typically by answering two magic questions: “What’s this about?” and “What are the parts of this piece?” Now I have an outline: the lead and the parts. The answer to “What’s this about?” creates my lead, usually one paragraph. Then I draft the easiest part first, followed by the rest. Late in the typing, an ending will usually pop into my head. I draft a little slower than usual, because I have less time to revise and need a better draft as a base. I take a one-minute break and then revise. In an emergency, I can knock out 800 words in about 18 minutes.

Why does that work? I use methods that produce an organized structure from the beginning, and then I slow down my typing a little.

Suppose you’re not a planner, but a PLUNGER, meaning you do things to figure them out. You type to decide what you want to say. The paragraphs come out in no particular order until you glimpse a pattern, then you type some more, but in a more directed focus. Then you use the block-move function to rearrange things to make sense. Plungers tend to write long and cut back, which makes them slow.

Plungers in an emergency might first decide what the parts are, and then type only paragraphs that will fit into those parts, resisting the urge to digress into interesting bits. They would not revise as they draft, because they will probably cut some things. When they have enough, they would rearrange and then revise the whole thing.

Finally, there’s another emergency method, regardless of whether you’re a planner or a plunger, but not for the faint of heart. You type with the screen off. You ask yourself out loud, “What do I want to say?” Then you turn the screen off and type at top speed. You watch your fingers to make sure they don’t shift off the right key range. When you realize you just typed the ending, you turn the screen back on. Here’s a shocker: the piece will be terrific, and you probably won’t have to revise much, if any.

Why does that work? You can’t criticize what you can’t see, and criticizing yourself while drafting makes you slow. And you may type better when you don’t watch what you’re typing. Bad typing makes us feel stupid.

Speaking of stupid, I’m the worst typist in the history of the world, and when I use the screen-off technique, I don’t make typos. Well, not many, mostly numbers. I’m not kidding; try it.

I wrote this piece in 22 minutes, without an emergency.

[How do you handle emergency writing?]

Published in: on October 7, 2009 at 5:53 pm  Comments (7)  

Dumb questions

Everybody hesitates to ask dumb questions for fear that everybody else will turn around and ask (silently), “Who let him in here?” But then somebody asks one, and everybody else snickers, and everybody quotes the answer to that question. Homer Bigart, war correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune and The New York Times, made a whole career of asking dumb questions.

Here’s a dumb question: What’s a dumb question?

A dumb question is one so basic that nobody else asks it. Everybody assumes that everybody knows the answer, or nobody thinks of the question in the first place.

Pavilion X

My second career is based on asking dumb questions, which I find easy because I want to know the answers. I asked one two weeks ago at a panel on the architecture of the University of Virginia. Richard Guy Wilson, a Thomas Jefferson specialist, was describing the restoration of the “parapets” on Pavilion X to an audience of architects, faculty members, and restoration specialists. During the question period, I asked what parapets are used for, and the whole audience burst out laughing. Later, I asked why they found the question funny, and they all said they either didn’t know what a parapet was, or what it was for. An audience of experts sat there not knowing something that basic, but feared to ask. Several of them thanked me later.

(By the way, a parapet is a wall around a roof or balcony.)

Here’s one of my favorite dumb questions. Let’s say an Air Force general is praising the accuracy of his bombers, bragging about the percentage of hits. So you ask him to define a “hit.” Everybody in the room gives you “the look.” If you had asked that question just after World War II, the answer might have been “Only 14 to 20 percent of the [8th Air Force’s] bombs fell within one thousand feet of the aiming point.” (Kenneth P. Werrell: Death from the Heavens. A History of Strategic Bombing).

A reporter friend of mine asked the president of a Florida junior college to define “Junior College.” He replied that no one had ever asked him that, and gave a definition that opened up a whole realm of information she had not imagined.

Dumb questions have a startling effect on interview subjects. They’re usually taken aback, and rarely have a prepared answer. So you get a fresh, unrehearsed, and often honest reply, which leads to rich follow-up questions.

The most powerful dumb question I know is “Why?” Just ask it, smile, and sit back and wait.

[What’s your favorite dumb question?]

Published in: on October 5, 2009 at 10:15 am  Comments (2)