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How to write like Winston Churchill

Nat Farbman / Time & Life Pictures

Winston Churchill’s prolific writing, while present in many an English household, seems to get lost in an American education. Most students, though familiar with his legendary oratory ability, would share my surprise in learning that he produced more words than both Dickens and Shakespeare combined. I recently read Boris Johnson’s biography of the man, The Churchill Factor, and found Churchill’s “fantastically expensive” method of writing a useful study on how to get things done.

Produce first drafts quickly, without inhibitions

Churchill’s first drafts were not written, but dictated. After dinner and “wreathed in tobacco and alcohol,” he would “walk the wooden floorboards and growl out his massively excogitated sentences.” Johnson notes that Churchill’s typists would struggle to keep up and that he would have them follow him around into his bedroom and sometimes even into his bathroom while he took a bath and continued to dictate.

This process produced a direct translation of thoughts to words. Writer’s block played no role because there was no tool for Churchill to stare at the page and edit as he wrote. His words would flow in only one direction. Tobacco and alcohol only further removed his inhibitions (though this writer might counsel against including addictive substances in one’s routine).

Edit once for readability and again for beauty

Churchill agonizing over his finest hour speech, Photo: Curtis Brown

After his typists finished processing his dictations, Churchill would correct and amend the sheaves of typewritten paper by hand with his iconic “cursive blue-inked marginalia” and deliver his revisions to his typists. He completed this pass rather quickly, ostensibly to ensure that the words expressed what he wanted to say.

Shortly after, he’d sit down with a fresh print of his work and agonize over the text. Johnson says, “He would fiddle with the text. He would switch clauses around for emphasis, he would swap one epithet for another and in general he would take the utmost delight in the process of polishing his efforts; and then he would send the whole lot off to be typeset again.”

While Johnson can justifiable characterize Churchill’s process as monetarily “expensive”--with its reams of paper and hours of dictation--it seems to me a frugal and effective use of time. Draft quickly, edit once for clarity and once for beauty.

Churchill’s process exhibits a master’s ability to focus on the right thing at the right time. He wastes no time wondering what to write or how he should write it, he just lets it empty from his brain. He doesn’t try to create art in his first round of edits, he prepares his ingredients (assembles his mise en place, if you will) for the activity that requires more of his time and energy.

Modern writing tools enable an inexpensive mimicry of Churchill’s process. Word processing is free and we hardly print any more. Yet the easy mechanics of deleting and editing and rearranging and publishing can lead to wasted time: trouble getting started and finishing drafts, premature editing, fear of pressing publish. Our expensive processes don’t case money, but time. Perhaps Churchill’s expensive writing ritual is precisely what the modern creative needs to produce more and better.

NOTE: I think this process of draft quickly, edit once for clarity and once for beauty extends well beyond writing. Definitely applies to programming (make it work, then make it fast) and design. Wonder what people think this doesn’t apply for.

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