December 7, 2008: The More Things Stay the Same

I’m on a bit of a Lincoln-as-writer tear — I finished Garry Wills’s Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America this morning. It’s an excellent book, but I suspect I’m inclined to like any book that explores, in detail, the beauty of Lincoln’s writing.

But that’s not where I’m going with this.

Wills quotes rather extensively from Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres — he says Blair “was still the respected expositor of rhetoric in Lincoln’s time.” A couple of quotes made me smile in recognition. One is, “The first rule which I shall give for promoting the strength of a sentence is to prune it of all redundant words.” Today, we might say, “Omit needless words,” but the idea is the same, even across a gap of over 200 years.

The other passage made me smile because it tells me that one of my worst problems is not mine alone: “For we may rest assured that, whenever we express ourselves ill, there is, besides the mismanagement of language for the most part, some mistake in our manner of conceiving the subject. Embarrassed, obscure and feeble sentences are generally, if not always, the result of embarrassed, obscure and feeble thought.” My writing is always a mess when I don’t know what I want to say, when it’s not clear to me what I’m trying to accomplish, proof of Blair’s point.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.


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