Monday, July 27, 2009

For the love of revising ... circa 1776

Thomas Jefferson labored over a declaration of independence in July 1776, then brought it before a Congressional committee, which tweaked the language -- including, for example, changing "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable" to "We hold these truths to be self-evident."

Then Jefferson and the committee brought it to the full Congress, where
"change after change was called for and approximately a quarter of what he had written was cut entirely," writes David McCullough in "John Adams."

Jefferson was not comfortable, McCullough wrote, but nobody recorded that he protested (out loud, anyway).

They took out some big stuff -- Jefferson had assigned the blame for slavery to King George, and he had written that Americans must forever break their relationship with the British people, whom he held partially responsible for the King's actions. And they made some minor changes -- instead of the King inflicting "unremitting" injuries on the colonies, the document would say he inflicted "repeated" injuries.

At one point, McCullough writes, Ben Franklin "leaned over to tell [Jefferson] a story ... that he had once known a hatter who wished to have a sign made saying, 'John Thompson, Hatter, Makes and Sells Hats for Ready Money,' this to be accompanied by a picture of a hat. But the man had chosen first to ask the opinion of friends, with the result that one word after another was removed as superfluous or redundant, until at last the sign was reduced to Thompson's name and the picture of the hat."

In the end, though, as McCullough points out, the "eloquent lines of the second paragraph" -- which were, "when all was said and done, [Jefferson's] lines" -- survived and still glow today:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

I think the revising stage of a great piece of writing -- the stage where you really get down to examining sentences and words and such -- can be the most fun and the most rewarding part of writing (if also among the hardest, particularly, perhaps, for the writer). I think there are a few of you out there who would second that thought.

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