“I Have a Dream” for Writers

PBS national parks Lincoln Memorial King 1963
March on Washington, August 1963: the view from over Lincoln's shoulder, from Ken Burns' National Parks at PBS.org

Today you’ll probably hear the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And it will probably begin, “I have a dream!” I recently shared his entire speech from the March on Washington, August 1963, with my writing students. Here’s what we observed:

  • Rhetorical triangle: Speaker, message, and audience couldn’t be more balanced and unified.
  • Persuasion: It wasn’t easy to claim basic American rights–to vote, to compete for jobs, to pursue education, to travel freely–without inciting violence and greater hatred.
  • Visual communication: Quoting Lincoln in the shadow the Great Emancipator’s gigantic statue, surrounded by a quarter-million respectfully dressed and civilly behaved people, didn’t hurt.
  • Technology: It was broadcast by CBS. It was recorded. It’s been experienced by millions who were then unborn.
  • Anaphora: “Now is the Time” or “Let Freedom Ring!” could have competed for title of this speech.
  • Allusions and Influences: The King James Version of the Bible and a number of hymns were quoted, and had influenced the cadence of his style.
  • The role of faith in history: Those quotations were not unfamiliar to the average American at the time.

But this isn’t a history class. It isn’t poli sci. It’s writing! And this is a class session dedicated to revising sentences.

  • Syntax: Notice the power of the simplest English sentences in his Biblical cadence.
  • Vocabulary: Claim the power of common, one-syllable, Anglo-Saxon words. Sprinkle Latin sparingly.

We have some fun rewriting one statement: “I have a dream.” How could Dr. King have messed that up?

  • High school: “I’ve been thinking a lot about how thing are going and therefore, I have, like, sort of come up with a few ideas for improving things.”
  • College: “I, as all human beings are prone to, have developed a formidable aspiration and expectation.”
  • Grad school: “Formidable aspiration and expectation that it is, the egregious circumstances that currently exist, and the interminable nature of them, require that alterations in personal, civic, and professional approaches to the injustices of society be undertaken.

I tease my clients with graduate degrees because they need the most editing of anyone this side of dyslexia or ESL. This is why I quit subscribing to a number of professional journals. I was trained on an academic journal–clearly, some journals know how to tell it straight–so I can’t bear to read bad writing about teaching writing. But I digress.

If you have never heard the entire sixteen-minute “I Have a Dream” speech, treat yourself today. May its principles and its beautiful language bless your life.


  1. I had a tendency, I guess, to write in your “Grad school language” when I was in junior high. (I wanted to be just like Anne of Green Gables and her eloquent speech). But I learned in college it wasn’t worth the ink.


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