Last summer I spent a day on the battlefields at Gettysburg, Pa. From July 1-3, 1863, almost 50,000 men died here. The relatively short battle turned the Civil War; Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army would never again invade the North.
Walking along the Union battery line at Cemetery Ridge, I thought about why Gettysburg happened. It’s an echo of the gospel: Great sacrifice is required to right a great wrong.
I walked a few hundred yards north from Cemetery Ridge. On Nov. 19, 4 ½ months after the battle, President Abraham Lincoln came here to dedicate Soldiers’ National Cemetery. The event’s main speaker was U.S. Sen. Edward Everett, who blathered two hours and 13,607 words in a speech no one ever quotes.
Then the president stepped forward. He began: “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Over the next two minutes, and in just 272 words, Lincoln delivered “the most eloquent articulation of the democratic vision ever written.” Great sacrifice was required to right a great wrong and restore a great vision.
Everett wrote to Lincoln the next day: “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
Historians have called the Gettysburg Address “deliberately biblical.”
Jesus told some of the most memorable stories in the history of humanity in fewer words than Lincoln would use for the Gettysburg Address. For consistency, I’ll use NIV for these examples.
- The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35) takes just 163 words.
- The lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7): 100 words
- The lost coin (Luke 15:8-10): 74 words
- The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32): a whopping 508 words. That’s verbose by comparison, but at 11-point Times New Roman, it still fits nicely on one page.
- The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13): 57 words!
Luke might have been the best journalist among the biblical writers. He not only quoted Jesus, he also followed his example. The story of Mary and Martha and their contrasting responses to Jesus visiting Martha’s home (Luke 10:38-42) took 121 words. The story of the Transfiguration – the moment when Jesus’ true glory is revealed at last (Luke 9:28-36): 212 words.
If there’s a secret to brevity, revered newspaper writing coach Donald Murray nailed it: Selection, not compression. Read Luke’s gospel and note the details he didn’t include. We have no idea what Mary or Martha looked like, what Martha’s house looked like or what they were having for dinner. We don’t even get the name of their “certain village.” All irrelevant. Instead, Luke selects the detail that Mary sat at Jesus’ feet while Martha prepared the dinner. He quotes Martha directly: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
Anyone who’s ever hosted a party can relate. And then Luke gives us Jesus’ response: “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Luke chose the precise details that best delivered the story’s meaning. The rest, interesting as they might have been, didn’t make the final cut. That’s a profound lesson in good writing.
Contrary to popular myth, Lincoln didn’t write the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope during the train ride to Pennsylvania. He worked two weeks on it, with the final version written on two pages: a piece of White House stationary and a plain blue sheet.
Lincoln knew his Bible. It’s not hard to imagine him drawing on the gospel stories’ brevity as examples. He also knew his audience: 15,000 people who had been standing for hours in the November cold. Presidential or not, a short speech would be better.
Writing short is harder than writing long. Every word, every comma and especially every period matters. Of Lincoln’s address, the Springfield (Mass.) Republican newspaper wrote: “His little speech is a perfect gem; deep in feeling, complete in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma.”
Today’s writers tend to think we have to invent a new art of writing ridiculously short, for a newly distracted audience. Hardly. The art has been there all along, just waiting to be rediscovered.
Deliberately biblical, you might say.