My book, “The Art of Clear Writing,” (available on amazon.com at Kindle Books and in print) contains several historical vignettes to illustrate the flexibility of different kinds of paragraphing and the correct use of punctuation. I’ve focused on Thomas Jefferson in this blog to illustrate two writing lessons: one to show the use of different kinds of punctuation, and the other to show how powerful concise writing can be. Here’s the first:
“Engineering The Louisiana Purchase – A Look Back
It was the hallmark of President Thomas Jefferson’s political philosophy that the Chief Executive should not have excessive power. Yet, in 1803, when faced with the opportunity to purchase from France the vast, unexplored, Louisiana Territory that bordered on the western side of America, he cast that belief aside and signed the agreement to buy the territory for $15 million.
Jefferson’s visionary act removed a potential threat to America’s national security. One option was to take no action at all, thus leaving Napoleon, builder of empires, in possession of the territory.
But Jefferson, taking the advice of American Commissioners abroad, decided on the purchase. Paving the way for this historical event was the work of Jefferson’s predecessor, John Adams, in securing peace with France during the so-called “Quasi War,” which ended in 1800.
There was considerable doubt as to the constitutional power to make such a purchase. But when the identical issue came before the Supreme Court in 1828 in a different case, Chief Justice John Marshall, speaking for the Court, ruled that “the Constitution confers absolutely on the government…, the powers of making war, and of making treaties; consequently, that government possesses the power of acquiring territory, either by conquest or by treaty.” (See: John Marshall, Definer of a Nation,335, Jean Edward Smith, Henry Holt & Company, 1996, quoting from American Insurance Co. v. Canter, 1 Peters 511, (1828), a case involving the purchase of Florida, but where the issue was the same as that involving the Louisiana Purchase.)”
As to the second lesson, writing with conciseness, my book devotes an entire chapter to avoiding faulty diction. The choice of correct, clear and effective words is defined as diction. One of the pitfalls of faulty diction is the use of excess language, or failure to be concise.
Holding your reader’s attention after getting the reader’s attention can be a challenge. The best way to do this is to avoid the use of an unnecessarily large number of words to expressan idea. Tautology, the needless repetition of an idea in different words, is a fancy word for it, but it’s nothing more than sloppy writing. Dense, wordy paragraphs and long, rambling, disorganized writing is certain to cause reader discontent and exasperation. Such writing amounts to pomposity, which will turn your reader off. Use familiar words. Write in a conversational and welcoming tone, not stilted or artificial.
Be attentive to every word you write. Much of the force of your presentation will spring from its conciseness. Use words judiciously, economically and at a level the reader can understand. Don’t make the reader grope for a meaning – it may be an unintended meaning. Less is usually more. Try to accomplish this result by “squeezing” your writing until all needless words have been eliminated. Question the need for everything that appears in your writing. Due diligence on the issue of wordiness will put you squarely on the road to writing concisely.
Patriotism aside, there is no finer example of the power of concise, effective writing than the following timeless words from the Declaration of Independence, penned by Thomas Jefferson:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
These memorable words, expressing the maximum in political sentiment in the minimum amount of space, the embodiment of powerful but utter simplicity yet profound in their implication, earned Jefferson a well deserved lasting place in American history.
Copyright © 2013. Arnold G. Regardie. All rights reserved.