5 writing tips from Abraham Lincoln

Not one for soaring hyperbole, Abe kept even his writing honest—and to the point. His style and preparation methods hold valuable lessons for writers of all levels.

One way to improve your writing is to read good writers.

Occasionally, if you are lucky, you come across a book on how a great writer writes. Such is Lincoln’s Sword by Douglas L. Wilson. No American president’s writings are as well known as those of Abraham Lincoln.

His First and Second Inaugurals, and the Gettysburg address survive in part for the music of Lincoln’s words, but that music served a purpose: His style served the content masterfully.

Here are a few things any writer can learn from Abraham Lincoln, as revealed by Wilson:

1. To convince, you must first understand. Good writers are good teachers. To persuade someone to abandon one position for another requires that you show some empathy. Lincoln told a colleague…

“that a peculiarity of his own life from his earliest manhood had been, that he habitually studied the opposite side of every disputed question, of every law case, of every political issue, more exhaustively, if possible, than his own side.”

So many books and papers nowadays argue in support of just one side, making all the available data fit a single hypothesis. How refreshing it is, then, to read an author who understands the strengths and weaknesses not just of her own side, but of yours.

2. Don’t be a jerk. Or, in Lincoln’s words:

“if you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.”

3. Pre-write. Often a grad student will tell me that she has no writing to do. Lincoln’s personal papers are full of scraps of manuscript in which he tried out ideas. He did this for at least two reasons. First, writing out partial ideas helps to clarify them. Second, Lincoln anticipated the need for a well-turned phrase long before events demanded it. So he started working on it before that day arrived. When it did, he was ready.

4. Always have paper and pen handy. Once, Lincoln was complimented on the quality and rapidity of his reply to some petitioners. In reply, Lincoln pulled out his desk drawer and said:

“When it became necessary for me to write that letter, I had it nearly all in there, but it was in disconnected thoughts, which I had jotted down from time to time on separate scraps of paper.”

Those scraps of paper? If Lincoln was out and about, he stuck them in his stovepipe hat.

5. Use simple words. Keep it short. Avoid fine writing. The style in Lincoln’s day was the long-winded, ornate, “spread-eagle oratory.” Lincoln would lampoon such speakers:

“He mounted the rostrum, threw back his head, shined his eyes, opened his mouth, and left the consequences to God.”

Now go to the Gettysburg Address, linked above, and give it a look. How many fancy words do you see? This speech lasted no more than three minutes—the length of a pop song of today—yet is revered for its power. It’s likely that none of us will write anything like the Gettysburg Address, but we can emulate Lincoln’s philosophy.

Or, as Blaise Pascal put it, “I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short.”

A version of this article first appeared on Dr. Mike Kaspari’s blog.

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