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Book Review of:
The Gettysburg Approach to
Writing & Speaking Like a Professional

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Review of The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking Like a Professional, by Philip A. Yaffe (Softcover, 2010)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

One of my favorite references for writers is The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. I believe Professor Strunk would, if he were alive today, have nice things to say about this book by Yaffe. In fact, Yaffe espouses the same core concepts of writing.

This isn't a remake, however, of TES. It's an original work, and it's well done. It's also badly needed in this era of semi-literacy and poor speaking. Anyone who communicates with other human beings can benefit from reading this book and applying the lessons therein.

As the title suggests, the author bases his book on the writing approach Lincoln used when composing the Gettysburg Address. Yaffe explains this approach clearly, and distills the principles into a few formulas that the reader can easily remember and apply. He also provides examples to illustrate "before" and "after," and I found those particularly helpful.

One thing that struck me as odd about Yaffe's analysis of the Gettysburg address is he does not address Lincoln's deliberate misuse of words. The reason for giving the Gettysburg address was to boost support for Lincoln's war. Historians tell us that public support was waning, and Lincoln badly needed a victory. He finally got that victory. He had, in fact, written the Gettysburg address in anticipation of it (not because he was so moved afterwards that he sat down and penned the address).

While it's true that Lincoln gave an amazing and powerful speech, it's also true that Lincoln lied while doing so. Consequently, even today people mistakenly refer to his war as "The American Civil War." By definition, however, this was not a civil war. In a civil war, insurgents seize the means of governing. Recall that the Confederate States didn't seize the capital, but seceded from the union and set up their own capital.

We can all agree that Ulysses S. Grant knew a thing or two about this war. Not once in his (extensive) memoirs did he refer to it as a civil war, but always as "the war between the states" or something similar. I think when you cover a speech that has propagated a manipulative lie as successfully as this one has, you need to address that issue somehow. Maybe a future edition can do this, with a new appendix for that purpose.

This book consists of 236 pages, 107 of which are appendices. That's a large appendix to text ratio, but don't be put off by it. In fact, it's a good thing.

Many years ago, I got involved in a project of revamping all of the maintenance procedures for a large, multi-plant manufacturing facility. I'd already earned my stripes as a writer, yet was always open to new ideas on how to improve. My boss on this project observed that most of the text in a typical procedure contains details people value but don't need to read to do the job. Instead of adding value, this extra detail detracted from the value of the procedure. He suggested this might be why we had a zero compliance rate with our procedures.

Yaffe talks about the pyramid way of writing, meaning you put the important information first. He walks the talk by doing this with those appendices. We did the same thing to solve our procedure problem.

Imagine a writing book bloated with things for you to wade through. It would not exactly a good example, would it? Yaffe's example is such a clear example of how to organize information that you don't even need to read the book to learn something that would vastly improve the performance of the typical writer or public speaker.

Don't be put off by the fact that Yaffe didn't bloat the main text with things for you to wade through. Strunk and White didn't believe in bloated text either, and their book is consequently a highly readable and useable resource for writers who wish to excel. For this, and other reasons, Yaffe's book is also a highly readable and useable resource for writers who wish to excel. And it goes beyond that to flip the writing coin over and address its other side: speaking.

I spent several years on the rubber chicken circuit, and honed my speaking style considerably. Why? Because I endured Death by Powerpoint and other abuses inflicted by "speakers" in many other meetings. I wanted to do better than that. So I developed a set of speaking principles. Yaffe hits those principles exactly on target.

If you don't communicate with other people, then you probably won't miss anything by not reading this book. On the other hand, if you live on planet Earth then this book is well worth the cover price. Read it, study it, apply it. You'll be glad you did.



About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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