Wednesday, July 1, 2009

What can copywriters learn from Thomas Jefferson?

All American school children know that Thomas Jefferson wrote the declaration of independence in 1776.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” This most famous quote demonstrates Jefferson’s genius as a writer and an original thinker.

Or does it?

I hate to disappoint American school children and students of history, but Jefferson was not the sole genius behind the writing the declaration, and ‘self-evident truths’ was borrowed from another document altogether.

Admittedly Jefferson wrote the initial draft. But it was heavily amended by the rest of the committee he was part of, and then vigorously debated in full congress.

Jefferson’s original document was mercilessly altered. It lost about a quarter of his original text and 146 new words were added. Like most writers, Jefferson felt his work had been significantly weakened by the help of others.

And the ‘pursuit of happiness’ passage? That was very close to the Virginia Declaration of Independence written some time earlier by a George Mason. With a few changes it was appropriated by Jefferson.

Do these inconvenient truths lessen the power of the declaration? Or do they make Jefferson any less of a brilliant man? Not at all.

But they do bust the myth of the lone genius. And they highlight a few key realities in writing compelling copy of any kind.

1) Jefferson and his colleagues were aiming for clarity, rather than sounding important. In a time when sentences could run for pages they remained brief and to the point.

2) The project was owned by Jefferson but he had help. It was neither an orphan raised by a committee nor was it the sole preserve of one man.

3) Jefferson felt free to borrow ideas that worked for his cause -“all men are created equal”. He and his colleagues felt no need to reinvent wheels when it came to capturing a vital sentiment.

So, if one of the best-known documents in history had to be drastically edited by two committees and used recycled material, then maybe our advertising and communication copy can stand some scrutiny too.

And maybe we copywriters should consider constructive criticism a moment longer, before we automatically reject it.

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