Sunday, September 12, 2010

Simplified writing, patriotic style

Given that it is the weekend of 9/11, I hope you don’t mind my saying that I have the greatest affection for symbols of American patriotism: our National Anthem, the bald eagle, the Statue of Liberty, military songs and marches, the monuments and memorials in Washington DC, Ground Zero, the 4th of July, apple pie, and baseball, to name just a few.

Today, I had the deep honor of singing the National Anthem (or one verse of it, anyway) at a wonderful fundraising event in Boston.  It was moving to look out on the crowd of hundreds of cancer survivors, supporters, and uniformed officers saluting the flag and singing along to this important American song.

As I rehearsed the song at home last week, I began to think about why many singers--including me--find it so tough to perform.  I came up with the following reasons:

  • There are few natural places to take a breath because each lyrical phrase (or sentence) is so long. As a result, most singers breathe in between “can you see” and “by the dawn’s,” and again between “star-spangled” and “banner,” which you wouldn’t do if you were speaking the phrases.
  • The tune starts off quite low and ends quite high; you need to be aware of the vocal range required to sing the National Anthem and prepare accordingly. It’s never good if someone starts singing the song really high…that means they’ll need to end on a super high note! 
  • Although beautiful and rife with moving imagery, the words are more poetry than song lyrics. (In fact, the lyrics come from a beautiful poem written by Francis Scott Key.) It takes a solid reading or two of the lyrics to really absorb each word's literal meaning.

 So, what in the world does all of this have to do with simplifying your writing?

I would like to use the treasured National Anthem as an example of how to simplify your writing. Of course, you will see that my “translation” has none of the original’s impact or imagery. Certainly, I’m not saying that the lyrics of this song need to be changed; rather, I encourage you to think about when it’s best to simplify your writing versus when it’s best to provide more descriptive language in order to inspire and engage your reader.

Original song
Simplifed version
Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Does the morning sun show what we hailed so proudly during the night?

Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
The item whose broad stripes and bright stars were seen streaming gallantly over the defense walls?

And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
The light from the rockets and bombs proved throughout the night that our flag was still there.

Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Does that star-spangled flag still wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Perhaps the simplified version helps the modern reader to ellicit a quicker understanding of the song, but it clearly lacks the panache and timelessness of the original version.

Is there something you've written recently--a report for work, an essay for school, a blog post--that you'd like to revise to make it more word-efficient OR more elegant in its style? If so, I'd love to see a before and after!

In conclusion, there is certainly a line between elegance and efficiency--though that's not to say you can't achieve both. Here's a parting example:

I don't think my Senior Vice President would want to read a briefing from me that read, "Mr. White's supreme devotion to our institution is worthy of your undying praise and time at next week's luncheon," but instead she'd probably want to see, "You will meet Mr. White for lunch next week to thank him for his involvement with our organization."  An attempted marriage of efficiency and eloquence might be: "Your goal in meeting Mr. White for lunch next week will be to express your deep appreciation for all he has done in support of our institution."


  1. Not that you were asking but I think both "America" and "America the Beautiful" are much better songs and should be our national anthem. The imagery in those songs provide the values which make us proud to hail the star-spangled banner.

  2. And,of course, what I meant to write was "either song would be better as our national anthem."


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