Monday, February 15, 2010

Persuasive Writing, President's Day Edition: Thinkin' Like Lincoln

So it's President's Day, the courts are closed, and we have some time to reflect . . .

Appellate writing can be overwrought. The desire to provide context or a theme can take over a brief (or even an opinion!), leading to a lengthy opus that may have fun to write, but isn't fun to read. Writing filled with obscure facts or self-conscious wit is usually unpersuasive.
On the far end of the spectrum is overly terse writing. I like the occassional one-sentence paragraph, but a brief filled with them makes for tedious reading. And the desire to be concise can lead to the omission of material facts or compelling authority.

Think about a speech given by any typical politician. It probably falls into the "overwrought" camp, full of bombast and pomposity and hasily hewn aphorisms. It might be moving at first, but it isn't likely to stand the test of time. The typical response or "analysis" to the speech will likewise leave one cold, as it zooms past any true analysis on its way to sound-bite glory.

One could imagine President Lincoln taking the opportunity to speak at a national cemetery dedication to give 90 minutes of bluster or wonk. One could also imagine him sending a telegram (a 1860s' "tweet") that reads something like: "Dedicating a national cemetery is ultimately a hollow act; better we emulate the soldiers' dedication."  Would schoolchildren recite that nearly 150 years later?

Good appellate writing walks the line between bulk and brevity. It persuades by avoiding immaterial facts and legal background, superfluous authority, and shoehorned humor -- while including the critical facts, the necessary background and authority, and well-crafted phrases.

It is memorable.  Like this:

"Four score 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."