How Churchill Polished and Improved His Writing by Constant Revision

How Churchill Polished and Improved His Writing by Constant Revision

Con­densed from “Con­stant Revi­sion,” an arti­cle under my pen name for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the com­plete text click here.

Revision and redraft

We are asked: “As I recall Churchill labeled his man­u­scripts some­thing like “draft,” “almost final draft” and “final draft.” Do you recall what those cat­e­gories were?”

We can­not estab­lish that he rou­tine­ly used those labels. Instead he tend­ed to use “revise” or “revi­sion.” Fre­quent­ly his fin­ished draft was marked “final revise.” It often took a long time before, with a sigh of relief, his pri­vate office staff reached that point. But the amount of revi­sion var­ied with the project.

Whether the prod­uct was pro­found or sim­ple, his first iter­a­tion was close to the mark. Grace Ham­blin, a long­time sec­re­tary, recalled: “His dic­ta­tion wasn’t dif­fi­cult because it was very, very slow and he weighed his words. As one knows he had a tremen­dous com­mand of the Eng­lish lan­guage, but he didn’t use it loose­ly. He con­sid­ered very care­ful­ly what he was going to say.”

Articles

Churchill’s arti­cles saw less revi­sion than his books and speech­es. He wrote over 2000, notably in the 1930s, when con­stant income was need­ed to sus­tain his expen­sive lifestyle. In Artillery of WordsFred­er­ick Woods wrote that some arti­cles “were unashamed pot­boil­ers [which] some­times sank to the lev­el of ‘Are there Men on the Moon?’ and ‘Life under the Micro­scope.’” But oth­ers, like “Mass Effects in Mod­ern Life” and “What Good’s a Con­sti­tu­tion?” were pro­found reflec­tions on states­man­ship and government—both of the present, and (with some fore­bod­ing) the future. In Churchill StyleBar­ry Singer notes that dur­ing his 1931-32 North Amer­i­can lec­ture tour, Churchill con­tract­ed for twen­ty-two mag­a­zine arti­cles. Ulti­mate­ly “they would gen­er­ate income in excess of £40,000.”

Michael Wolff, in a thought­ful intro­duc­tion to Churchill’s Col­lect­ed Essays, says his arti­cles offer “the authen­tic Churchill in a way that can oth­er­wise only be cap­tured in his speech­es.” His method of com­po­si­tion didn’t vary, Wolff writes. But assem­bling a major his­to­ry or mem­oir was far removed “from the orig­i­nal Churchillian utter­ances as he dic­tat­ed the first para­graphs in the mid­dle of the night per­haps many months before…. But Churchill was nev­er a dull man, was almost inca­pable of writ­ing or speak­ing a dull sen­tence, and his ideas were near­ly always imag­i­na­tive.”

“Delayed-fuse chortle”

Robert Lewis Taylor’s excel­lent biog­ra­phy, Win­ston Churchill: An Infor­mal Study of Great­ness (1952), high­lights anoth­er pur­pose of Churchill’s articles—influencing pub­lic opin­ion: For mag­a­zines in Eng­land and Amer­i­ca, Tay­lor wrote,

he spoke up with author­i­ty on sub­jects high and low, but always at high prices. Collier’s was the out­let for most of his Amer­i­can arti­cles. He struck some provoca­tive notes. In one issue he casu­al­ly pre­dict­ed the return of silent movies, bas­ing his stand on the enjoy­ment he recent­ly had derived from a film of Char­lie Chaplin’s. The piece was, in fact, sub­stan­tial­ly a minute biog­ra­phy of the come­di­an, with side lights on pan­tomime, then and now. Churchill gave cred­it for the art to the Emper­or Augus­tus, and added that “Nero prac­ticed it, as he wrote poet­ry, as a relax­ation from the more seri­ous pur­suits of lust, incen­di­arism and glut­tony.”

Many Collier’s read­ers took the notion, right or wrong, that the great states­man was hit­ting his ripest vein—a kind of gen­teel, delayed-fuse chortle—in the pages of the pop­u­lar week­ly. The humor that would seem ill timed in a his­to­ry of war, or a trea­tise on his father, often sprang into joy­ous life in his rapid-fire pot­boil­ers.

Social media, 1930s style

Today, peo­ple read more social media than lengthy arti­cles. Sim­i­lar­ly, Churchill noticed the “pop­u­lar press” replac­ing long news­pa­per columns of speech tran­scripts. After the First World War, wrote Michael Wolff,

it was not enough to appeal to the coun­try through ver­ba­tim reports of speech­es in the columns of The Times or the Morn­ing Post…. Churchill felt that he had to address him­self direct­ly to the new elec­torate, tak­ing the bat­tle against Social­ism and Com­mu­nism straight into work­ing-class homes…. So it is that we find him writ­ing in a new style for pop­u­lar Sun­day news­pa­pers [and] in the years lead­ing up to the Sec­ond World War, for the News of the World and the Sun­day Chron­i­cle as well…. But more than any­thing, Churchill—rejected, as it seemed, by the “establishment”—needed a new audi­ence and a new polit­i­cal base….

Does that not remind us of the Twit­ter and Facebook cam­paigns of mod­ern politi­cians? Some, appar­ent­ly, are as aware of the chang­ing face of com­mu­ni­ca­tion as Churchill was a cen­tu­ry ago.

Speeches

Churchill took more pains with his speech­es than his arti­cles. Once he told his grand­son they required “one hour of prep for each minute of deliv­ery.” That was nor­mal­ly an exag­ger­a­tion, though his great war speech­es might have tak­en that kind of time. He dic­tat­ed, as sec­re­taries took his words in short­hand. Typed drafts saw revi­sion after revi­sion. Final­ly came “Speech Form,” with each pas­sage picked out by indents. Grace Ham­blin remem­bered that

the dif­fi­cul­ty was to know which word he real­ly meant you to put down. You would hear him mut­ter so often the same phrase in a dif­fer­ent way. You could eas­i­ly put him out if you entered a line in the wrong place. Also he had a way of short­en­ing his words. “Ch of Exch” meant Chan­cel­lor of the Exche­quer, but “C of E” meant Church of Eng­land. I once trans­posed them. My most notable mis­take was when he’d dic­tat­ed “tenure of office” and I wrote “ten years of office”…. You can imag­ine what he said about that!

Books

Churchill con­stant­ly revised his books, before, dur­ing, and after pub­li­ca­tion. Inevitably they went through mul­ti­ple impres­sions, issues and edi­tions, so he had ample oppor­tu­ni­ty. Fred­er­ick Woods wrote:

Revise would fol­low revise, even­tu­al­ly to become a “Final Revise”; this title, how­ev­er, rarely ful­filled its promise. More often than not “Over­take Cor­rec­tions” then began to arrive, some­times even after the press­es had start­ed run­ning. For his mem­oirs of the Sec­ond World War, this com­plex process result­ed in a sit­u­a­tion where­by Vol­umes II and IV had, respec­tive­ly, two and three com­plete and vari­ant texts.”

This writer remem­bers anoth­er sec­re­tary, Eliz­a­beth Nel, say­ing, “We all heaved a sigh of relief when asked to type the ‘final revise.’” But that wasn’t the end of it. The pub­lish­ers heaved an even big­ger sigh after waves of “over­takes.” Jock Colville, a per­son­al pri­vate sec­re­tary, said WSC was one of the few authors for whom pub­lish­ers tol­er­at­ed two or three com­plete reprints of page proofs.

Further reading

Richard M. Lang­worth, “How Churchill Saw the Future: Pre­scient Essays from Thoughts and Adven­tures.

Richard M. Lang­worth, “Churchill’s Col­lect­ed Works.”

Justin D. Lyons, Churchill’s Tri­al: Win­ston Churchill and the Sur­vival of Free Gov­ern­ment by Dr. Lar­ry P. Arnn.”

Video: Dr. Lar­ry P. Arnn, “Churchill as a Defend­er of Con­sti­tu­tion­al­ism.”

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