I have a mantra in class: “Readers do no work.” If you’re James Joyce or Toni Morrison or any other writer lavishly blessed with the gifts of linguistic prestidigitation, you can presume that your readers signed up for the ride, expecting that some heavy lifting might be required of them. Most of us, though - and all of us in the realms of nonfiction and journalism - cannot presume that. It is for us to do the work first, so that none is required of our readers. Clear thinking leads to clear writing, which leads, most importantly, to clear understanding.
Writing doesn’t get much clearer than the Gettysburg Address, the first thing I ask my students to read. It’s barely a third of the length of an op-ed column. As Garry Wills has memorably pointed out, Lincoln is reimagining America from the very first line, by taking Jefferson’s words to heart in a way that the slaveholding Jefferson himself did not, and by elevating the Declaration of Independence, with its promise that “all men are created equal,” above the Constitution, which reneges on that promise, as the defining document of our nation. If you’re going to ask a boy from Maine to die fighting a boy from Georgia in a field in Pennsylvania, you’d better be clear on why, and he was.
“I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes,” Edward Everett, whose long oration preceded Lincoln’s short one, wrote to him later.
My own favorite entry in the Lincoln canon is even shorter, a scrap of paper that the editors of his collected works speculatively dated to the summer of 1858, during his failed Senate campaign against Stephen Douglas, but that appears in none of his speeches or other writings. It is an entire philosophy of both morality and government in three sentences.
“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master,” Lincoln wrote. “This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”
To be clear without being commonplace - that is the elusive goal of good writing as defined by Aristotle in his Poetics. No American writer was ever more so than the lanky, haunted figure thinking and writing his way toward the Oscars, bumping into ideas and finding clear and uncommon ways to fit them into words.