Abraham Lincoln’s Writing Habits
by Gene Griessman, Ph.D.
Noah Brooks, who was an important journalist and editor of the 1800s, had an opportunity to observe how Abraham Lincoln composed important messages. He has left us a snapshot of the President that shows him working on an important message–in this case, his Message to Congress, which in those days was printed and sent over to Congress to be read:
“It is a favorite habit of the President, when writing anything requiring thought, to have a number of slips of (paste)board or boxboard near at hand, and seated at ease in his armchair, he lays the slip on his knee, and writes and rewrites in pencil what is afterward copied in his own hand with new changes and interlineations…
Then being ‘ set up’ by the printer… spaces of half an inch are left between each line in the proof.. . More corrections and interlineations are made, and from this patchwork, the document is finally set up and printed.” ( Charles Bracelen Flood, “1864”)
What can you learn from this snapshot of Lincoln about effective writing?
One. Select a system that will make it easy for you to write down your thoughts. Lincoln chose to sit with a pencil and a stiff paper board in his lap. And he turned it into a habit. You may work best with a pad and pen, or at your computer, composing notes on your smart phone, or talking into a dictating machine or a voice-recognition system such as Dragon. There are good writers who do it all of these ways.
Experiment until you find a mode of writing that suits you, and then turn it into a habit. A habit—doing it the same way every time—allows you to concentrate on what you have to say.
Two. Make it easy to make corrections and edits. School children and amateurs think they can turn in unedited first drafts. There have been some great writers who made virtually no edits. Like Mozart, whose manuscripts were virtually perfect from the beginning, they do not spend a lot of time editing. In fact, journalists writing on deadline often have little time to edit. But most of us need to be like good mathematicians that double-check and triple-check our work,
Abraham Lincoln certainly was. That is the reason for the myth that Lincoln composed the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope on the way to the cemetery. He probably was making some last-minute edits on the way to the cemetery, because we know that he had begun composing the speech days before.
“There is no such thing as a great writer,” Jacques Barzun is credited with saying, “Just great re-writers.”
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–Gene Griessman is an internationally known keynote speaker, actor, and consultant. His video “Lincoln on Communication” is owned by thousands of corporations, libraries, and government organizations. He has spoken at conventions all over the world. To learn more about his presentations, contact us at 404-256-5927, 404-435-2225, or [email protected] Learn more about Gene Griessman at www.presidentlincoln.com and www.atlantaspeakersbureau.com
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