Monday, October 15, 2012

"Shall we have an editor?" (with apologies to John Jay, who originally wrote "a king")

Apparently, Thomas Jefferson used to send people copies of his draft of the Declaration of Independence. He didn't like Congress's edited version. Bill Bryson once observed that Jefferson, like most writers, thought his version was better than the edit; and that like most writers...he was wrong.

I was discussing editing with a former newspaper editor only yesterday. We both agreed that we could cut a piece to any length, maintain the tone and weight, and convey the same depth of research that had gone into the original longer draft. But editing is more than that.

Some of America's greatest politicians have been great editors (is there something in that?). There is a book called Ask Not by Thurston Clarke which examines the editorial work John Kennedy did on his first inaugural address (of course the title of the book comes from the speech's famous phrase - 'Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.') And one of the highlights of Garry Wills' Lincoln at Gettysburg is the side-by-side comparison of Secretary of State William Seward's draft of Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address and Lincoln's touch up.

Seward, for example, wrote: "The mystic chords which, proceeding from so many battle-fields and so many patriot graves, pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours, will yet harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angels of this nation."

And Lincoln lifted it to: "The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

I guess what I'm getting at is that an edit can ratchet up the meaning. The example I can think of with real punkt is again from the Declaration of Independence. In the great clause about all men being created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among them Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, Jefferson originally wrote: "We hold these truths to be Sacred and Undeniable..." In a hand that looks like Benjamin Franklin's, "Sacred and Undeniable" is crossed and above the line someone has written (a word that is perfect and unarguable): "self-evident".

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