Let FDR Teach Your Students How to Revise

— Paul Murphy, Guest Writer on

On December 8, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his most famous speech. Seeking a formal declaration of war against the Empire of Japan, Roosevelt addressed Congress, calling the prior day’s attack on Pearl Harbor, “a date which will live in infamy.” Within an hour, the United States had formally entered World War II and the course of world history was forever altered.

The “Infamy Speech,” or his Pearl Harbor Speech has obvious historical significance, but it’s also an excellent example of the power of revision, since Roosevelt’s first draft, complete with the President’s handwritten notes and alterations, has been preserved. There’s a lot to be learned for anyone trying to improve their writing, and teachers can use it to help students understand the importance of revision. It’s a lesson many teachers struggle to get students to take seriously. While writers know that real writing requires revising, many students stubbornly resist it.

Part of the problem is that it’s difficult to show students how exactly to go about it. “Make it better” isn’t particularly helpful. “Add some details” is nearly as vague. Sometimes, after modeling and providing feedback and conferencing to little avail, teachers are happy if students just add a few linguistic flourishes and insert some periods where they belong.

But Roosevelt provides us with clear examples of how seasoned writers improve their work. His infamy speech is a perfect model to study in class. It’s short, at less than 500 words and only 25 sentences, and the changes Roosevelt made to his first draft are easily understood. They provide a glimpse inside the mind of the writer. So here is how writing instructors might use Roosevelt’s revisions to teach the importance of doing this essential part of the writing process.

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Most interesting is that Roosevelt's famous line, “a date which will live in infamy,” was originally written, “a date which will live in world history.” Let this be a lesson on word choice. The former stresses the historical importance of Japan’s attack. The latter passes harsh judgment on Japan’s actions and predicts that posterity will forever agree. It preemptively strikes any justification Japan may later offer and is a blow to moral relativism. There is good and there is evil, and the word infamy makes clear which nation is on which side.

Revision Lesson: Word choice matters, so consider every word carefully.

Roosevelt later describes the attack as “simultaneous,” a reference to Japan’s use of both its navy and air force. He changes that to “suddenly,” which, like the switch from “world history” to “infamy,” has the effect of labeling the enemy’s actions as underhanded instead of simply describing the mechanics of the attack. Who cares how Japan conducted the thing? It was a dirty sneak attack is what matters! This is in keeping with the overall theme established by Roosevelt’s use of the word infamy.

Revision Lesson: Be consistent — Make sure your sentences and word choice serve the theme.

Some of my favorite revisions are simple things that all writers can learn from. FDR removes his original “without warning” because once he added “suddenly,” that language became redundant. When something is sudden, it happens without warning. There’s no point in saying it twice.

Revision Lessons: Don’t say the same thing twice in the same sentence.

Roosevelt also changed “Hawaii and the Philippines” to “Oahu” as the place that was attacked. It's more specific, and it removes the Philippines—a target that would not have directly stirred a sense of nationalism in his audience. Later in the speech, other references to the attack on Manila were removed and “attacks” became singular, keeping the focus squarely on America, the uniquely aggrieved.

Indeed, that Japan attacked the Philippines on this date has largely been forgotten by history, thanks to Roosevelt's address. “Oahu” delivers a better punch, and it's obvious throughout the speech that Roosevelt is appealing to Americans’ anger in his justification for war. (An interesting note: When he delivered the speech, Roosevelt clarified that Oahu was an “American island,” presumably because he feared the public might not know their geography.)

Revision Lesson: Consider your audience and purpose. Roosevelt wanted a declaration of war, and stirring his listeners’ emotions was more likely to persuade them than a sterile recitation of the facts. Also: take out details that weaken your argument, even if they’re true.

Later, taking a page from Strunk and White, Roosevelt substitutes one word (“states”) for three (“contained a statement”).

Revision Lesson: Conserve words.

In another place, FDR writes, “The United States was at that moment at peace with that nation and was continuing the conversations with its Government.” FDR crosses out “was continuing the conversations,” and opts for “still in conversation.” I’m not sure why; the meaning doesn’t change. But my suspicion is that Roosevelt simply thought it sounded better. And that’s a lesson too, although one earned with long hours reading and writing:

Revision Lesson: There are lots of ways to say something, but some ways sound better than others. Read and reread your own writing. Read it out loud. Then make it sing.

Lastly, although it’s not a revision, Roosevelt made the deliberate choice to start the speech in the passive voice. Instead of writing, “Japan attacked the United States,” he emphasized the victim status of the U.S. by making it the object being acted upon, thus establishing the theme of the speech as an innocent nation being victimized by a duplicitous aggressor. The passive voice is almost universally condemned by writing instructors, which leads to the final lesson:

Sometimes, the “right” way to do things is wrong. When it comes to writing, rules aren’t set in stone. But you’d better have a good reason for breaking them.

Paul Murphy is a third grade teacher in Michigan with 18 years of classroom experience. He writes books that help teachers and blogs at TeacherHabits.com.

This guest post has been edited for clarity.

— Wesley James on Thu April 26, 2018
Such great ideas to approaching this speech. Bravo!