Language

Gettysburg

All prose is wordy–it’s made of words! So when does prose, a fundamentally wordy thing, deserve to be disparaged as wordy?

I struggle with this question because my brain is wordy–got lots o’ words. My thoughts are wordy, so my writing comes out wordy.  How much time should I spend eliminating “unnecessary” words?

The question is complicated because “wordiness” is a matter of perspective. If someone is convinced I’m a good writer, or if they’re particularly interested in my subject, they will likely ignore the redundancies in my prose. However, if they don’t “trust” me as a writer, or if they are bored by my topic, they will notice and object to my excesses.

I’ll go further and say that “wordiness” is a matter of musical taste and reproduction. All writing is musical in that it has tone and rhythm; the words are the raw material for a concert that we perform in our minds as we read.  Words will “sound good” to us if we can find the right voice to read them in (and when the author or text comes recommended, we usually work harder to find that voice).  If we don’t have an inner voice to fit the text, then our performance will fall flat: we’ll hear a bunch of disconnected sounds and call it “wordy.” 

We accept the wordiness of great speeches like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address because all of the verbiage becomes a substrate for the aura–and the sound–of a great speaker.  Read it like Lincoln, and it does sound great; read it in the voice of a bored student, not so much.

As an experiment, I’ve tried to rewrite Gettysburg as a modern schoolteacher might, if the original text had been submitted as a homework assignment, an essay draft to be edited. Here is the final revision (95 words):

Our nation was founded eighty-seven years ago on the idea that all men are created equal. Our civil war is now testing whether any nation based on that idea can endure. Today, we dedicate a portion of the battleground to our fallen troops. But in a larger sense, we cannot hallow this ground with words–the troops have already hallowed it with their struggle. Instead of talking idly, we should dedicate ourselves to their unfinished work, so they will not have died in vain. Let’s keep our nation free and ensure that self-government survives on earth.

Here is the original (267 words):

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 battle-field 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 that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not 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.

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