I don’t think much about creating powerful and beautiful language when I write. Anyone reading my prose will no doubt agree. But if you were to ask me if I write well, I would say yes without hesitation. I did passably in my college writing class which, as I recall was more focused on making a cogent argument than about elegantly turning a phrase. During my career, I must have written hundreds of business letters, created many power point presentations, business reports and the like. They were serviceable and workmanlike communications but at no time has anyone ever commented on the beauty of one of my sentences. To be honest, none of my bosses ever asked for more than that and I had other things to think about.
Today, while reading an article describing the art of Lincoln’s writing I raised my thinking about writing to a higher level. The author explains that he was challenged thirty years ago when responding to a letter to the editor about an editorial that said Lincoln’s writing was accomplished by trickery and engineered construction. The letter asserted that engineering is a poor analogy implying mechanical properties while writing is an art.
While agreeing with the writer’s point, out author points out that there are numerous rhetorical devices in the Gettysburg Address and he describes some of the as they are applied in such masterpieces as the Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible and the plays of Shakespeare, all of which were enjoyed by Lincoln. It is certainly not surprising to find that he would use the same devices in his own writing.
If familiarity and appreciation were all it takes to develop into a graceful and powerful writer, the world would be full of wonderful writers so Lincoln’s familiarity with great writing does not fully explain his skill. He goes on to suggest that the forces that helped make Lincoln such a good writer went beyond his love of good writing. He suggests that the long years of arguing cases in small town courtrooms helped him learn to use powerful and simple words and phrases to communicate with juries. In addition, he suggests that the importance of the telegraph in communicating with his generals during the Civil War helped him develop a skill at condensing his thoughts into strong, effective communications.
As I read this, I began thinking about two of the new communication techniques that have begun to dominate significant segments of our society – Twitter and text messages. As I struggle to understand and use them effectively, I wonder if they might not have the same ability to teach concise and powerful communication today as the courtrooms and telegraph offices of Lincoln’s day. Will there be a President, facile with these new forms of communication that will be remembered for his writing?
Maybe we already have one Time will tell.