What the Declaration of Independence Can Teach Writers

In Writing on July 1, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Every Independence Day, my family follows the tradition of reading aloud the Declaration of Independence. It started as civics lesson to help our children better understand the meaning of the Fourth of July, beyond fireworks and barbeques. Today, it just seems a natural part of the holiday, as well it should.

As I was reflecting on the Declaration of Independence recently, I realized that the way this document was crafted provides a wonderful lesson in writing. While few pieces of writing will have the importance of the Declaration of Independence, it is always helpful to learn from a master of the craft. So, thanks to Thomas Jefferson for illustrating the following writing strategies:

  • Before you write, have a strong command of your subject. When Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, according to David McCullough in the wonderful book, John Adams, he wrote without referring to books although he did use his own previous writings. Jefferson was immersed in the thought behind the document, including that of British and Scottish writers, and the debate swirling in Congress, which allowed him to write freely.
  • Make every word count. The English language consists of thousands of words, each with a slightly different meaning. This allows a writer to choose the precise word that captures the desired meaning.  When Jefferson’s draft was shared with a review committee (even Thomas Jefferson had to deal with the approval process!), his words, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable…” were changed to the much stronger, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
  • Write with one voice. Thankfully, the Founding Fathers were smart enough to know that a document of such importance could not be written by committee. Hence, Thomas Jefferson was given the job of drafting with a committee reviewing his work.

On that note, have a wonderful Independence Day and take a moment to read the Declaration of Independence. After all, that’s what Independence Day is all about!

How It All Began

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