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5:24 AM Thu, Jan. 24th

Column: History's challenge to writers: Keep it short, sweet

A bunch of members of Lubbock High School's Class of '51 from near and far will be descending on the old hometown in September in observance of their graduation 60 years ago, and I was commissioned to mail out 250 or so newsletters detailing the upcoming event and inviting participation. Replies have been fogging in at a good clip, but I'd like to mention one in particular that I received from a '54 grad, George Nelson. (If you're wondering how George got The Word when he came along three years later than the '51ers, it's because I've been in contact with him in the past and invited him to attend the affair if he'd like, which he is planning to do.)

Anyway, George is a lawyer there in Lubbock, and with his response he sent along an interesting article that appeared in this month's Texas Bar Journal. The author of the piece is Douglas E. Abrams, a law professor at the University of Missouri, and a major thrust focused on the importance of conciseness in legal writing. George, recognizing one of his own failings, noted that he was especially interested in the article "because I have been criticized (albeit justifiably) for my verboseness over the years."

To bolster his point, Abrams provided a telling quote by Sir Winston Churchill when he noted that "this report, by its very length, defends itself against the risk of being read." He also quoted journalist and satirist Ambrose Bierce as writing "what is probably history's shortest book review - only nine words." Bierce's zinger: "The covers of this book are too far apart."

"Sometimes an historical example can help dispel a writer's concern that readers might mistake conciseness for weakness," Abrams observed. "The 'less is more' school profits from recounting President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, which he delivered on Nov. 19, 1863, to help dedicate a national cemetery to fallen Civil War soldiers."

Preceding Lincoln to the podium on that occasion, Abrams pointed out, was Edward Everett, "widely regarded as the greatest American orator of the era." After Everett "held the podium for more than two hours, Lincoln rose with a masterpiece that took less than two minutes. Mindful that the nation's newspaper and magazine readers needed a concise, stirring and readily embraceable rationale for wartime perseverance, Lincoln knew that his audience extended beyond the shadows of the cemetery."

Everett was immediately painfully aware that he had been one-upped by the president big-time and, Abrams noted, wrote to Lincoln the next day that "I should be glad if I came as near the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes. My speech will soon be forgotten; yours never will be. How gladly would I exchange my hundred pages for your twenty lines."

On a light note to cap off this column, I'd like to point out that Lincoln might have been even more concise than he was that November day, based on a Bizarro cartoon that appeared some time ago in the Daily Courier. It shows Honest Abe, in his familiar stovepipe hat, leaning against a pumice block fence, a skateboard beside him, while holding an electronic device. The cartoon is labeled "The Gettysburg Tweet" and reads like so: "4 scor n 7 yrs ago R 4fathrs brot 4th on this con10nt a nu nashn..."