How To Write Like Lincoln
by Gene Griessman, Ph.D.
Robert Lincoln, the oldest son of Abraham Lincoln, has left us a great quotation and a vivid picture of his famous father’s writing technique:
“He was a very deliberate writer, anything but rapid….He seemed to think nothing of the labor of writing personally and was accustomed to make many scraps of notes and memoranda. In writing a careful letter he first quoted himself, then corrected it and then re-wrote the corrected version himself.”
There are four lessons here for today’s writer.
One. Do Forward Thinking. Lincoln made it a practice to write down random thoughts and ideas and assembled reference information (“memoranda”) around him before he sat down to write. You can use the same approach. Think of yourself as a master chef who assembles all the ingredients of the dish that you will prepare–before you cut on the burner.
Two. Be deliberate. You can feel Lincoln’s formidable will in the statement “He was a very deliberate writer.” Lincoln abandoned early in his career the flowery style that was popular in his day. He became forceful, powerful, direct.
Three. Pace yourself. If you stop and start a lot, it will show in your writing. Sometimes you can’t avoid it entirely, but it is better to move at a slow, steady pace than to proceed by jerks and halts. Readers will be able to sense when you stopped to find just the right word. Keep writing even if you aren’t satisfied with the first words that come to you. Get your ideas down. You can come back and polish your work later.
Four. Edit. Robert Lincoln spoke about the “labor” of writing. Writing is labor–hard, manual labor–and every good writer knows it. If you aspire to be an excellent writer, there is no substitute for correcting and re-correcting and re-writing. And don’t think for a minute that Lincoln just did this just for big speeches. He also did it for his letters.
And there you have it. Four lessons to help you write like Lincoln.
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