Good advice for the General: Write like you talk

October 16, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, Civil War, history, journalism, writers, writing.

As a writing teacher of several decades, I never cared for the advice “write like you talk.”

Most people don’t talk all that well. Besides, writing is a different process from talking. Talking is easy. Writing is hard.

But “write like you talk” was the advice that Ulysses S. Grant got from Robert S. Johnson, an editor at Century Magazine, in 1884 after Grant had sent the magazine a draft of an article that he had written for its Battles and Leaders of the Civil War series. The draft was a disaster.

Grant been asked to write his memoirs many times, and he had always refused. He did not believe he could write, but more than that, he did not believe anyone would be interested in what he had to say. That makes Grant, to my mind, the last truly humble politician in American history. 

Grant, of course, could not have been more wrong. Generals on both sides of the war had been weighing in with their points of view on the war — mostly favorable toward themselves — almost since the day Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. Two decades after the war, the editors of Century Magazine gave many Civil War participants yet another chance to tell their stories. Most jumped at it. Grant did not.

But in the winter of 1883-84, Grant found himself financially strapped. He had invested in what turned out to be a Ponzi scheme and had lost all of his money. After initially refusing an offer for Century Magazine to write four articles for $500 each, Grant accepted. The $2,000 would not alter Grant’s fundamental financial situation, but it promised some relief.

So, Grant wrote his first article and sent it to the magazine.

The editors read and were appalled. It was stiff, cliched, and boring. It read like a military report, which Grant was used to writing.

Robert Johnson, the youngest of the editors in charge of the Battles and Leaders project, was assigned to tell the most famous person in the country — the hero of the Civil War — that he would have to try again.

Johnson did so, and Grant took it well. He was willing to try again.

Then Johnson asked Grant to talk about some of his war experience. Grant did so. He did it was grace, humor, and humility. That’s it, General, Johnson said in effect. That’s the way you should write — just the way you have told it to me. Just the way you talk.

Grant took that advice, too, and that’s the way he began to write. Doing it that way, he found that he enjoyed the writing — enjoyed telling the stories that he had experienced and that were still in his head. 

The ultimate result was the greatest military memoir written in American literature: The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S, Grant. The story of the actual composition of the memoirs is more complex and tragic, however, and we have written about that previously.

The story here comes from a recent presentation by John Marszalek to the Knoxville Civil War Roundtable. Marszalek and his colleagues Frank Williams, David Nolan, and Louie Gallo, have recently produced a complete annotated edition of Grant’s memoirs. The work has been critically acclaimed and will be a necessary part of the library of anyone who wants to do further work the Ulysses Grant, the man who could write like he talked.


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