Some time ago, I said in one of these screeds that in good writing “what” you say is important, but “how” you say it is every bit as—if not more—important.
That prompted a comment from a friend, fellow writer, and former teacher that, to his way of thinking, the two are inseparable. I guess we are of different minds. Here’s an explanation. In some of the workshops I teach I use this example to demonstrate:
“In 1776, our founding fathers, desiring freedom and equality for all, created the American nation.”
That sentence is a fairly good, if simplistic, explanation of the birth of our country. It says what it needs to say and does so in a straightforward manner without a lot of foofaraw.
But, the same thought, the same idea, the same “what,” in the hands of a better writer comes out this way:
“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.”
That writer was, of course, Abraham Lincoln, opening the lid on his immortal Gettysburg Address. And while my line captured the “what” of it equally well, it will never be immortal.
All because Mr. Lincoln didn’t just say it—he paid more attention to the “how” of saying it.
(If you look hard enough, you’ll see Honest Abe circled in the 1863 photo, below, from the Gettysburg dedication ceremony.)