Sunday, January 7, 2018

Historian Barbara Tuchman on the Art of Writing

In deciding how to deal with the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy relied heavily on lessons he learned from reading historian Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, her history of World War I and her explanation of how a relatively minor event led to a bloody four year war. From her book, the President learned the importance of exercising restraint in crisis situations.

In an article on the subject, Professor Douglas Abrams argues that if Tuchman had not written so readable a book, President Kennedy might not have read it and might have opted for a more violent reaction to the Russian missiles in Cuba. He also presents five lessons from Tuchman on writing well.

  1. “The most important thing about research is to know when to stop. . . . One must stop before one has finished; otherwise, one will never stop and never finish. . . . I . . . feel compelled to follow every lead and learn everything about a subject, but fortunately I have even more overwhelming compulsion to see my work in print.”
  2. “The writer . . . must do the preliminary work for the reader, assemble the information, make sense of it, select the essential, discard the irrelevant. . . . What it requires is simply the courage and self-confidence to make choices and, above all, to leave things out.”
  3. Words are seductive and dangerous material, to be used with caution. . . . “[C]areless use of words can leave a false impression one had not intended.”
  4. “[S]hort words are always preferable to long ones; the fewer syllables the better, and monosyllables, beautiful and pure . . ., are the best of all.”
  5. “[I]t is a pleasure to achieve, if one can, a clear running prose . . . . This does not just happen. It requires skill, hard work. . . .It is laborious, slow, often painful, sometimes agony. It means rearrangement, revision, adding, cutting, rewriting.”

You can access the article here. The Cuban Missile Crisis, Historian Barbara W. Tuchman, and the 'Art of Writing' (September 1, 2017). 73 Journal of the Missouri Bar 268 (Sept. - Oct. 2017)


| Permalink


Post a comment