What Can Abraham Lincoln Teach Us About Technical Writing?

by George Slaughter
Senior Technical Writer, The Integrity Group

Former President Abraham Lincoln has been in the news lately as the nation remembers the 200th anniversary of his birth on February 12. In examining Lincoln’s journey from log cabin to the White House, we can draw lessons in persistence, dealing with criticism and tragedy, and staying focused on one’s goals.

Interestingly, Lincoln’s writings also provide us with four lessons that we can use in technical writing.

First, Lincoln wrote to the needs of his audience. In the movie Saving Private Ryan, set in World War II, we saw a scene in which George C. Marshall, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, read a letter from Lincoln to a Mrs. Lydia Bixby, who lost two sons in the Civil War. Marshall read this letter before he ordered a squad, ultimately led by Captain Miller (played by Tom Hanks), to find and rescue Private Ryan.

Here is the letter:

Executive Mansion,
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.

Dear Madam,—I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts, that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom. Yours, very sincerely and respectfully, A. LINCOLN.

Mrs. Bixby.

(Source: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 8, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, accessed at http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idxc=lincoln;cc=lincoln;type=simple;rgn=div1;q1=mrs%20bixby;singlegenre=All;view=text;subview=detail;sort=occur;idno=lincoln8;node=lincoln8%3A255)

Since the letter was sent, it was found that Mrs. Bixby lost two sons, and not five as cited in the letter. Yet Lincoln’s ability to address her grief, while expressing the nation’s thanks, remains an example to study and reflect upon.

Second, Lincoln kept his communications brief. The best example of this was the Gettysburg Address, delivered in November 1863. The speech was only 272 words, and he needed approximately two minutes to deliver it.

Here is the speech:

Fourscore 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 that 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.

(Source: American Rhetoric, accessed at http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/gettysburgaddress.htm)

While scholars and students continue to read and remember the speech, here’s an irony: Lincoln was not the principal speaker that day. Edward Everett, who had held various political offices and was a prominent orator of the day, had that honor. Everett’s speech lasted two hours, and nobody seems to remember what he said.

Third, Lincoln used words to create a picture for his audience. The conclusion of his second Inaugural Address, delivered in March 1865, provides an example:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

(Source: American Rhetoric, accessed at http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/abrahamlincolnsecondinauguraladdress.htm)

Finally, Lincoln used humor when appropriate. Once Lincoln met with a group of Congressmen. The Congressmen complained that the new Union general, Ulysses S. Grant, drank too much and was unfit for command. According to John Eaton, a teacher and army chaplain, Lincoln said:

. . . I then began to ask them if they knew what he drank, what brand of whiskey he used, telling them most seriously that I wished they would find out. They conferred with each other and concluded they could not tell what brand he used. I urged them to ascertain and let me know, for if it made fighting generals like Grant, I should like to get some of it for distribution.

(Source: Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Ferenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996; page 147, accessed at http://books.google.com/books?id=L1FyFWcojbcC&pg=PA147&lpg=PA147&dq=lincoln+on+grant+and+whiskey&source=web&ots=UDoPG1se0d&sig=EcLQgVCtga7qM0JkonHlHzsWqEc&hl=en&ei=SUmWSYSlJYmQtQPa6Y18&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=8&ct=result#PPA147,M1)

This is not to suggest that we send whiskey to those who would review our documentation—well, in most cases, anyway. Bribery—let’s say incentive—sometimes expedites a documentation review.

How do these examples from the 19th Century help you meet your deadlines today? By focusing your writing on the needs of your audience, by keeping things brief, and by creating a picture for your reader, you’re helping your reader successfully perform his or her tasks.

And by keeping a sense of humor, you can laugh when your network access is unintentionally and unexpectedly revoked.