How "Vague" Writing Can Be Powerful: A Lesson from Abe Lincoln

In his wonderful 1992 book – Lincoln at Gettysburg – Gary Wills explains that one of the reasons the Gettysburg address was so powerful is that Lincoln did not use any proper names – that’s right any – in the entire address. Consider this portion of the speech:

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…

Not the Civil War but a civil war. Not the United States, but “that nation.” What’s the name of that battlefield? You won’t find that out by reading Lincoln’s speech. By being so nonspecific, so general, Lincoln made the message of his speech that much more universal. This is a writing lesson to keep in mind. Normally being more specific and more concrete makes writing more powerful. In this case, Lincoln found a better way to get his ideas across.

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One Response to How "Vague" Writing Can Be Powerful: A Lesson from Abe Lincoln

  1. It seems like a delicate balance — the point being that we should occasionally step back from the concrete, but that we should do so carefully and thoughtfully. Once you’ve established the concrete very clearly, then you can zoom out and not get lost in vagueness. “That nation, or any nation, so conceived…” nicely makes the transition from the specific, already established referent to a broader one. The preceding words (and context) established which nation he was talking about and how it was conceived.

    Getting the balance right is more of an art than a science, and I agree that it’s a powerful technique, but used indiscriminately it can do a lot more harm than good.

    See what I did there. Proving I’m no Lincoln.

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