Abraham Lincoln is revered in a way matched by no other American. Historians estimate that more than 16,000 books have been written about him.1 Some speculate that Jesus is, perhaps, the only more-popular book subject. Lincoln’s most lasting legacy may be his eloquence, and he could have had a very successful career as a professional writer. Picking one specific quality of Lincoln’s writing talent, his use of brevity, certainly does not mean this was his only literary skill. Lincoln used many rhetorical devices very effectively, including alliteration, rhyme, repetition, contrast, balance and metaphor. Lincoln often chose to forego brevity in favor of other rhetorical devices. Brevity is the focus of my article because it is critical for persuasive legal writing, which I teach.
How would Lincoln define brevity? Lincoln gave us a glimpse when he made the following observation about another lawyer, “He can compress the most words into the smallest ideas of any man I ever met.” The opposite of that practice, the quality of expressing much with few words, is what I mean by brevity.
Lincoln the Lawyer
We lawyers love to claim Lincoln as one of our own, but Lincoln’s legal career initially was ignored by historians. This oversight is somewhat surprising because “no other president spent quite so much time inside a courtroom; and the law had never exercised quite so exclusive an influence over a chief executive.”4
I contend that Lincoln’s use of brevity was grounded in his decision to become a lawyer. His years spent practicing law taught him the intertwined qualities of clarity and brevity. He used clear, simple language when arguing a case before a jury. He avoided technical language, but instead used a conversational tone. Lincoln did not waste his arguments. He saved his words, and used just the necessary number of those words, for the most essential matters; further, Lincoln’s days as a lawyer helped him develop his writing and editing habits.
Masterful Examples of the Power of Brevity
I smile to myself when I see articles about Lincoln’s speeches titled “Lincoln’s Finest Hour.” These titles should be revised to “Lincoln’s Finest Minutes” because it took Lincoln, a slow speaker, between two and three minutes to deliver the Gettysburg Address and about six minutes to deliver his Second Inaugural speech.
The Gettysburg Address summarized the Civil War in 10 sentences and 272 words. Of the 272 words, 206 are only one syllable long. Lincoln used ordinary vocabulary to create a new Constitution based on its spirit instead of its words. The Gettysburg Address has been called “startlingly brief for what it accomplished.”5 Lincoln considered his Second Inaugural Address his finest speech. It was 701 words long, and 505 words were only one syllable long. Lincoln was concluding the speech even as people were still arriving to hear it. Today, the Second Inaugural is remembered for its timelessness, sacredness and theme of reconciliation.
Some lament that the Second Inaugural always has been overshadowed by the Gettysburg Address. Both are masterful examples of the power of brevity. Both are short and use short words and yet still convey universal and lasting ideals and values. Architect Henry Bacon selected the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, from all of Lincoln’s work, for the Lincoln Memorial because “these two great speeches made by Lincoln will always have a far greater meaning to the citizens of the United States and visitors from other countries than a portrayal of periods or events by means of decoration.”6 Plus, the speeches were so brief that the complete text of both fit on the memorial’s walls.
Lincoln’s Three Critical Writing Habits
Lincoln worked hard for brevity and eloquence. He was a slow and deliberate writer, but he was not daunted by the labor of writing. He wrote to order his thoughts. It may disappoint some to learn that Lincoln did not possess a creative muse allowing him to quickly dash off speeches that continue to inspire. But the truth that Lincoln worked, and worked hard, to compose his speeches should be a source of inspiration to legal writers. We cannot hope to match Lincoln’s eloquence, but by adopting his habits of writing in advance, visualizing the audience and ruthlessly editing, we can improve the persuasiveness of our own writing.
1. Start Writing Early
Lincoln always started writing his speeches early, at least by making notes on scraps of paper. A common but misguided myth is that Lincoln quickly composed the Gettysburg Address on a discarded piece of paper while riding the train to Gettysburg. Not true. Lincoln was formally invited to speak at Gettysburg just 17 days before the Nov. 19, 1863, event, but he was far from cavalier in preparing the address. Instead, he wrote and rewrote the speech several times. Lincoln scholar Ronald C. White Jr. notes, “The truth was that Lincoln’s genius grew not from spontaneity but from hard, painstaking work with words.”7
Legal writers should follow Lincoln’s lead and start writing early. The act of writing forces the writer to think about and develop the legal arguments, notice strengths and weaknesses, and craft an organized structure. Writing early also leaves enough time for editing.
2. Visualize Your Audience
Lincoln visualized his audience when he was a lawyer. Lincoln’s contemporaries reported that Lincoln was an outstanding storyteller. He used those storytelling skills when he delivered his “story” to juries and judges. When Lincoln the lawyer became Lincoln the president, he knew he must write and speak both for those in the live audience and for those who would read his speeches in newspapers. He strategically considered audience in every circumstance. He knew that long speeches would not resonate with his war-weary audiences.
Many writers struggle to write for an audience because they are not exactly sure who may read their work. We lawyers have it easy. We know our primary audience is judges, and we even know they want brevity and clarity. A thorough 2000 study of the federal judiciary proves brevity is absolutely essential to persuasiveness.8 The conclusion from the study: “What judges really want is shorter, harder hitting briefs.”9 Our audience is begging for brevity, and we ignore that plea at the risk of decreasing our persuasion.
3. Ruthlessly Edit
Lincoln’s practice of diligently revising and editing may be his most surprising writing habit. He sometimes made final revisions until just before he delivered a speech. Lincoln did not always use short speeches, short sentences or short words. Both the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural end with very long sentences. Still, Lincoln deliberately chose short sentences and short words whenever possible. He used words of Anglo-Saxon origin instead of Latin origin.10 He used words he knew from memory instead of using novel language.
We lawyers can benefit from those same practices. Editing for brevity works at every level of the legal brief: the complete brief, individual sections of the brief, paragraphs, sentences and especially words. Shorter is almost always better in almost every situation. If you have time to edit for only one problem, edit for brevity.
Lincoln did not consider himself a great writer. We know better – Lincoln was a brilliant writer. We can find inspiration from Lincoln’s compelling and extraordinary use of brevity.
I knew my Lincoln article had to be brief. Seriously, how could I write a long article about brevity? Yet, during editing, the article kept getting longer and longer. Why? Everyone has a favorite story, a favorite quality, a favorite detail about Lincoln. My peer editors could not tolerate the omission of their particular favorites. Brevity was not the only powerful persuasive tool in Lincoln’s arsenal of eloquence, but I featured brevity because it is critical for lawyers today.
My next project is to investigate some of our other eloquent presidents and explore their writing habits and the qualities that made their writing great. My list includes Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses Grant and Teddy Roosevelt, but please send me an e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) with your suggestions.
Note: To read Brevity Persuades: Adopt Abraham Lincoln’s Habits, visit: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1293001. The article will be published in the fall 2009 edition of the Journal of the Association of Legal Writing Directors.
Author: Associate Professor Julie Oseid has taught at the University of St. Thomas School of Law since 2004. She teaches Lawyering Skills I, Lawyering Skills II, and (In)Famous Trials. Her research interests include persuasion, storytelling and professionalism.
Read more from St. Thomas Lawyer.
1 Frank J. Williams, Abraham Lincoln: Commander in Chief or “Attorney in Chief?” 18 Spring Experience 12, 13 (Spring 2008).2 Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words 4 (Vintage Books, 2006); Theodore C. Sorenson, A Man of His Words, Smithsonian 96, 98 (October 2008); Fred Kaplan, Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer 320-21 (HarperCollins, 2008).3 Lincoln’s Own Stories 36 (Anthony Gross ed., Harper & Bros., 1912).4 Brian Dirck, Lincoln the Lawyer 171 (University of Illinois Press, 2007).5 Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America 35 (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1992).6 Lincoln Memorial Commission Report, Sen. Doc. 965, 62d Cong. (1912), Appendix G.7 Ronald C. White, The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words 234 (Random House, 2005).8 Kristen K. Robbins, The Inside Scoop: What Federal Judges Really Think About the Way Lawyers Write, 8 Leg. Writing 257 (2002).9 Id. at 257.10 David Herbert Donald, Lincoln 461 (Simon & Schuster, 1995).