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The Power of the Right Word

Photo taken at WWII Memorial, Washington, DC, May, 2010

Last Wednesday was the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which drew the United States into World War II. Perhaps you heard the following words more than once in recent days.

Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. Franklin Delano Roosevelt

President Roosevelt’s speech to the nation, a call to arms, began with these words. I watched a TV documentary about the attack and the aftermath. There was a portion describing Roosevelt’s struggle to compose his most memorable speech. First, he dictated it to his secretary, who then typed it up. He made several changes, the most important ones being the first sentence. His original draft said:

Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – a date which will live in world history – – the United States of America was simultaneously and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

Notice that “infamy” was not in the original draft. Yet, December 7, 1941, has become known as the Day of Infamy. As writers, we know how tempting it is to dash off a first draft and resist editing or revising. But, look what powerful and memorable results came from Roosevelt’s persistence in finding just the right words to convey his message.

This “Washington Post” article describes the process by which Roosevelt developed the speech. And the national archives has an article online showing photos of all pages of the draft. And here’s another interesting detail. The last sentence before he asked for the formal declaration of war, also frequently quoted, was suggested by the president’s aide. It is almost as powerful as the first sentence, in my opinion.

With confidence in our armed forces—with the unbounding determination of our people—we will gain the inevitable triumph- so help us God.

Roosevelt did two things that all writers should always do:

  • Don’t be satisfied with the first draft.
  • Let others read your work, and listen to their criticisms and suggestions.

For powerful, memorable writing, give it your best effort. Your words can make a difference in the lives of others. And, not only that, your words might be read 75 years from now, like Roosevelt’s.

Full text of the speech is here.

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8 Responses to The Power of the Right Word

  1. Terry Whalin December 10, 2016 at 9:37 am #


    Thank you for this reminder about the power of words and especially the power of the right words. Keep up the great work on this blog.

    The Writing Life

  2. Tracy Crump December 10, 2016 at 1:15 pm #

    Thank you, Emily. I enjoyed learning the story behind Roosevelt’s speech. When I homeschooled my boys, we read a similar story about Lincoln writing the Gettysburg Address. Writing is rewriting.

  3. PAT ROWLAND December 10, 2016 at 2:17 pm #

    Thank you for this lesson in history as well as a lesson for writers. Words do make all the difference.

  4. Emily Akin December 10, 2016 at 6:11 pm #

    Thanks, Terry.

  5. Emily Akin December 10, 2016 at 6:11 pm #

    Thanks for the tip, Tracy. I’ll have to see what the national archives has about Lincoln’s speech writing.

  6. Emily Akin December 10, 2016 at 6:13 pm #

    Thanks for commenting, Pat. Merry Christmas.

  7. Cecelia L. Lester December 11, 2016 at 12:17 pm #

    Emily: I learned a few things that I didn’t know through reading Roosevelt’s speech. Thank you for the lesson in history and the reminders on writing.

  8. Emily Akin December 12, 2016 at 9:13 pm #

    Thanks for your feedback, Cecelia. Merry Christmas.

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