Review and key quotes: The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson

The Splendid and The Vile, by Erik Larson

You may know about Winston Churchill’s prowess as an orator.

But what do you know about Churchill the writer and writing teacher?

Erik Larson’s excellent book, “The Splendid and the Vile” is about Churchill at the time of the London Blitz. I’m sure many potential readers ask, “Did we really need another Churchill book?”

Yes. We needed this one.

Larson tells the story of the London Blitz from deeply personal perspectives. Not only from Churchill, but from members of his family, his cabinet, and his support staff. We see the dawn of war and all its terrors from well-sourced documentation, which Larson uses to crawl inside the minds of the participants.

As a result, we get much more than another academic tale about the London Blitz. Instead, we feel the anguish and triumph from those making decisions shaping the war and those simply victim to it.

And for writers, there’s a bonus.

Weaved throughout the book are insights into Churchill the writer: his struggles, his methods, and plenty of examples of his prose.

Here are 14 things we can learn from Churchill, all summarized from “The Splendid and the Vile,”to become better writers.

Editing cures lazy writing

Winston Churchill implored staff to keep memos to one page or less:

“It is slothful not to compress your thoughts. Nearly all [memos] are far too long. This wastes time, while energy has to be spent in looking for the essential points.”

A leader’s writing style shapes organizational culture

“Churchill’s communiqués tumbled forth daily, by the dozens, invariably brief and always written in precise English.”

His writing pace and precision kept his staff sharp, accountable, and on task in the fog of war.

Respect the reader by writing honestly

Winston Churchill’s blunt honesty built credibility, which made his inspirational messages believable:

“If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”

To persuade, make the reader the hero of story

Churchill persuaded the British people by making them the hero in his writing:

“… if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

Even great writers struggle to write. Persist!

“To watch [Churchill] compose … is to make one feel that one is present at the birth of a child, so tense is his expression, so restless his turnings from side to side, so curious the noises he emits under his breath.”

Maintain your sense of humor in your writing

Even in war, Churchill was quick to joke:

“After [Churchill’s wife] Clementine once criticized his drinking, he told her, ‘Always remember, Clemmie, that I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.’”

Used sparingly, uncommon words create high emotional impact

Churchill wrote to the French:

“Such an act would scarify their names for a thousand years of history.”

Scarify was a six-hundred-year-old word. Churchill selected it for impact.

If writing is a priority, you will find time to write

Winston Churchill had a writing side hustle!

“He wrote books and articles to supplement his official income … until his appointment as prime minister, he had written columns for the Daily Mirror and News of the World.”

Eliminate formal prose that obscures key points

Like Bezos at Amazon, Churchill set expectations for memos:

• “Set out the main points in a series of short, crisp paragraphs.”

• “Let us not shrink from using the short expressive phrase, even if it is conversational.”

Write to understand what you think

Winston Churchill knew it would benefit both writer and reader if staff were forced to write out their thoughts:

“… the discipline of setting out the real points concisely will prove an aid to clear thinking.”

The shortest prose can deliver the greatest emotional impact

Lord Beaverbrook tried to resign from Churchill’s government 14 times. He closed one resignation letter with, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.”

Churchill fired back a two-word response:

“I do.”

Use metaphors to deliver vibrant mental images

Churchill on Harry Hopkins, a sickly but powerful confidant to FDR:

“His was a soul that flamed out of a frail and failing body. He was a crumbling lighthouse from which there shone the beams that led great fleets to harbor.”

Get feedback on small pieces of content & ideas as you iterate

Winston Churchill trialed ideas and phrases by mixing them into conversations and cabinet meetings. If they resonated, he used them in speeches.

This is @david_perell’s content triangle theory, WWII style.

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Be authentic. Let it all hang out. (But not literally.)

In writing and life, Churchill was not one for pretense:

“‘You see, Mr. President, I have nothing to hide.’ … for the next hour [he] conversed with Roosevelt while walking around the room naked, sipping his drink.”

Even at the most trying time in World War II, Churchill didn’t just find time to write. He used writing to clarify strategy, lead and inspire the British people, and to set the pace and precision of his staff’s efforts as they worked to protect their country.

Writing is powerful. It can even save nations.

The TL;DR on writing lessons from Winston Churchill:

  • Make the reader the hero

  • Uncommon words = high emotion

  • You do have time to write

  • Write to understand what you think

  • Short prose = high emotional impact

  • Metaphors give writing vibrance

  • Get steady feedback

  • Let it all hang out