Tuesday, March 05, 2019

It's not the writing that counts - it's the crossing-out

One of the most striking revelations in Andrew Roberts book about Churchill is how much work he put into every single piece of communication he authored.

He had a prodigious memory, which meant he could call upon every poem, Bible reading or Shakespearean speech he had ever heard, and he was almost incapable of writing an inelegant sentence.

But that didn’t mean he would wing it.

Churchill would dictate his speeches, then correct them on the page and then dictate them again. The final version he read from would always be rendered in “psalm form” with the short lines indented so that he could read each one before saying it and then easily see where his eye should go next.

That’s how he became the greatest orator of the twentieth century - by starting off with a God-given talent and then working at it four times as hard as anybody else would.

I was thinking of him yesterday when I saw this letter which John Steinbeck wrote to Marilyn Monroe. It’s just a simple request for an autograph but it’s better written than most novels.

I bet he did it ten times before he got a version he was happy with. That’s the difference between the greats and everybody else. The infinite capacity for taking pains.


  1. So true. The time and effort required to make writing concise and free from unnecessary words is huge.

    The mathematician Blaise Pascal said in one of his letters “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time”

  2. Anonymous9:20 pm

    I think Clive James falls into the same category.

  3. A million wonderful things about this post:
    - 'Psalm form' is a term I didn't know but which I'm going to use often.
    - Is this where 'sunlit uplands' comes from?