Before he turned sixteen, George Washington copied, in long hand, a set of rules composed by French Jesuits in 1595. They were his 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” His assignment was an exercise in penmanship assigned by his schoolmaster, but the “Rules” guided his later writings. Many had nothing to do with writing. Those that did seem fussy now, but probably made sense in 16th Century Europe. Here are George Washington’s Rules of Writing.
“Let your discourse with men of business be short and comprehensive.”
Rule 18: “Read no letters, books, or papers in company but when there is a necessity for the doing of it you must ask leave: come not near the books or writings of another so as to read them unless desired or give your opinion of them unasked.” The English-to-English translation is: stay away from other people’s writings unless they want you to read what they wrote. And even then, keep your opinions to yourself.
Rule 39: “In writing or speaking, give to every person his due title according to his degree & the custom of the place.” Right. When writing to someone above your station (a mere writer), make sure you know his, or her pedigree. And use big words, as is customary when people of import write to one another.
Rule 50: “Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any.” Wow. This may be the original source of certain high officials today who insist that anything disparaging is fake news.
Rule 54: “Play not the Peacock, looking everywhere about you, to see if you be well decked, if your shoes fit well, if your Stockings sit neatly, and cloths handsomely.” This may be the source of gleaming gold and orange hair, dull red neckties that hang well below your belt line, and cufflinks that have their own cufflinks.
Rule 79: “Be not apt to relate news if you know not the truth thereof. In discoursing of things you have heard, name not your author, always a secret discover not.” For reporters, this one may be absolute terror, not to mention heresy. Reporters rarely know the “truth” of what their sources say, but they know how to keep their sources secret.
Rule 86: “In disputes, be not so desirous to overcome as not to give liberty to each one to deliver his opinion and submit to the judgment of the major part especially if they are judges of the dispute.” In other words, quit saying there was no collusion to those who will, in time, be the judge of whether you colluded. And if you insist on saying it, do it in long form, not in a tweet. It doesn’t become you.
Rule 110: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.” This is the last rule for a reason. It applies to today’s writers. Your first edit should be a search for your own little spark of conscience. If the search comes up empty, ask yourself whether you want anyone to read what you just wrote.
Perhaps the best end to this short blog is to cite our first president. “A slender acquaintance with the world must convince every man that actions, not words, are the true criterion of the attachment of friends.”
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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