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Thoughts on Writing

Gettysburg Oration vs Gettysburg Address: Analyzing Lincoln’s Greatness

July 1 marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. November 19 will be the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. It will also be the sesquicentennial of the forgettable Gettysburg Oration, which was delivered by Edward Everett. For several hours before Abraham Lincoln delivered the immortal Gettysburg Address, Everett spoke. He was, in fact, supposed to be the primary speaker. History has shown, however, that it was Lincoln who carried the day.

Everett was a distinguished gentleman. He had been president of Harvard University, member of the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. senator, governor of Massachusetts, U.S. secretary of state, minister to Great Britain. Most people considered him an excellent speechmaker.  If printed out, Everett’s speech runs to about 30 pages.

At Gettysburg, he began, "Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. . . ." Had Everett had the benefit of MS Word readability statistics, he would have noticed that he had just gone 55 words without a sentence break – and he still wasn’t done. Contemporary research recommends an average sentence length of fewer than 20 words.

Two hours later, he was still talking. You have to hand it to the audience – they had a better attention span than do audiences today. Can you imagine hundreds of citizens in 2013 sitting quietly through a two-hour elocution? Not likely. Everett  closed with this 65-word gem:  "But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country, there will be no brighter page than that which relates the Battles of Gettysburg."

Then came Lincoln. In about two minutes, he delivered a 272-word speech that still brings us to tears today.  How did he do it? Here is an analysis of the writing techniques that gave everlasting life to Lincoln’s words.

What Moves the Gettysburg Address?

Here it is. Read it slowly;  if you read it aloud, you will enjoy it even more.  Several versions of the Address exist; this one represents Lincoln’s final draft.

Four score 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. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.  We are met on a great battlefield of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that their nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate -- we cannot consecrate -- we cannot hallow -- this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.  The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.  It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

·         Lincoln's average sentence length is 28 words, still long by today’s standards but substantially shorter than Everett's. If we exclude the last sentence, the average length is around 20 words.

·         Of the 272 words in the Gettysburg Address, about 13% (36 words) are verbs. Nearly 30% (77 words) are used in verb phrases, including adverbs and helping verbs such as shall, cannot and will.  Of these verbs, only one is in the passive voice: “are created equal.”  You will find subjunctives, participles, perfect tenses, future tenses, and other verb cases—but not the passive voice.

·         Note the prevalence of words that conjure specific visual images, such as our fathers,on this continent; great battlefield; brave men;honored dead and others.

·         Perhaps the greatest strength of this speech is in its use of parallelism. Parallel structure appears 14 times:
1.            Four score and seven years
2.            conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition
3.            that nation or any nation
4.            so conceived and so dedicated
5.            gave their lives that their nation might live
6.            fitting and proper
7.            we cannot dedicate -- we cannot consecrate -- we cannot hallow
8.            living and dead,
9.            add or detract.
10.          will little note nor long remember
11.          it can never forget ... [what we say here]  ... what they did here
12.          It is for us ... to be dedicated here
13.          to the unfinished work which they who fought here
14.          government of the people, by the people, for the people

This combination of tools: powerful verb forms, evocative, specific nouns, and parallel sentence structure, were the technical tools that Lincoln used to move and inspire his countrymen, then and now.

Perhaps your message need not endure for centuries; nevertheless, using some of the tools that Lincoln used will add power to your words.
©2013 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved
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For more information about powerful writing, see Parts 5 and 6 of Get to the Point! by Elizabeth Danziger. Don’t have your copy yet? Get it now at http://www.worktalk.com/get-to-the-point.
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