Under The Sun

Friday, May 14, 2004


Lynn Sislo has a question: why is one of these paragraphs "better" writing?

"I close. We are not we must not be aliens or enemies but fellow countrymen and brethren... The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation."

"I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies... The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

The former is William Seward's first draft, and the latter is Abraham Lincoln's revision, from the close of Lincoln's first Inaugural Address. Lincoln was right, and he was right because of St.-Exupery's Principle: the perfection of design is not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. Or (as one of Lynn's commenters mentioned) Strunk and White's Rule #17: Omit Needless Words.

"I close. (We are not) we must not be (aliens or) enemies but (fellow countrymen and) brethren... The mystic chords (which proceeding) from so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and (all the) hearths in this broad continent (of ours) will yet again harmonize (in their ancient music) when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation."

Everything in parentheses can be omitted--and indeed, that's fairly close to what Lincoln did. He also substituted simpler words for pretentious ones.

"I [am loth to][1] close. [We are not][2] enemies, but _friends_. We must not be enemies[3]... The mystic chords [of memory][4], stretching[5] from every battlefield[,][6] and patriot grave, to [every living][7] heart and [hearthstone][8], all over this broad _land_, will yet [swell the chorus][9] [of the Union][10], when again touched[11], [as surely they will be][12], by the [better angels of our nature][13]."

[1]: "I close" was deemed too brusque. Judgment call. Lincoln's version is more human, which is rarely a bad thing.
[2]: I thought this could be omitted. Lincoln disagreed. After some thought, I agree with him.
[3]: The separate, short sentence is more emphatic.
[4]: As Mike said: What chords?
[5]: Much more active than "proceeding".
[6]: I don't understand what that comma is doing.
[7]: "living" is an upbeat, vibrant word.
[8]: As Harvey noted, "hearthstone" is easier to say out loud.
[9]: Vibrant!
[10]: Union!
[11]: "breathed upon" is distant; "touched" is intimate.
[12]: Hope!
[13]: This speech is about us, not about some angel.

All of these changes--plus the two word choices I underscored--improve on Seward's draft. That's the difference between good writing and great writing.

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