‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’
No prizes for guessing who said this one, especially as I’ve put his name in the title. Churchill’s words on the Battle of Britain in 1940 are probably some of the most famous in history.
But something you might not know is that Churchill had a good few goes at these words – or a variation, at least – before he really got it right.
Forty years earlier, when speaking at a by-election in Oldham, no less, he said:
‘Never before were there so many people in England, and never before have they had so much to eat.’
Nine years later, he dusted off the old notebook and gave it another crack. This time he was talking about a new irrigation system in Africa:
‘Nowhere else in the world could so enormous a mass of water be held up by so little masonry.’
That’s not even the whole of it– there are loads more examples in here.
For any writer familiar with the feeling of struggling to get the words out, thinking about this example can be pretty freeing.
Effortless to read doesn’t mean effortless to write
Writing that looks naturally brilliant is, more often than not, the product of hours – or decades, in this example – of reworking something bit by bit until it just works.
When we see great words printed on an advert, or hear a great speaker say them, it can feel like they were always that way. That they just appeared fully-formed.
In reality, though, Churchill was able to come up with such a word-perfect line to suit this occasion because he was a great writer, yes, but also because he already had it in his armoury, after years of honing.
Let your first draft be a bit rubbish
We love the idea of the casual genius. But no one writes a perfect first draft.
There’s a myth that Abraham Lincoln scribbled the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope on the train on the way to give the speech. It’s a nice romantic image, but it’s not true: he spent a couple of weeks on it, probably made lots of revisions, and hated the idea of speaking off the cuff.
So next time you’re sat in front of a blank Word document, waiting for divine inspiration to strike, think about Churchill playing with the same words over forty years. Get a first draft out your system, and fix it later.