Our Distinctive Writing “Voice”

The net is wonderful in so many ways. It brings together those of us who otherwise would never have known each other. It allows us to share so much with others who may be equally enthusiastic about…. whatever it is we’re enthusiastic about.

I’ve read quite a lot of Thomas Jefferson over the years. You may know the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, U.S. diplomat in France from 1784-89 (a period of his life that, you may not be shocked to learn, has always been of particular interest to me), first Secretary of State, Vice President, and finally 3rd President, even gets casual mentions in my novels. That’s because, unsurprisingly perhaps based on my real-life interest, I’ve made “James” something of a “fan” too – and by this 3rd novel it’s well-known among other characters, who sometimes have some fun with it:

"Distances" back cover character quotes. [Original photography by me, 1995.]
“Distances” back cover character quotes. [Original photography by me, 1995.]

So when I saw this quote on Twitter a few days ago, I’d thought: How interesting? Hmm. I’ve never seen that before?:

False Jefferson quote.
A Jefferson quote?

If you read someone enough, you also learn what reads as “familiar” coming from his or her pen. We all have “a voice.” I know I have a writing style that would now probably give me away in an instant to some of you should you see it elsewhere.

Which is why, as a reader of tons of Jefferson’s original writings and, especially, his letters, that that quote did NOT look like his writing style to me. That gut feeling of doubt I had led me to wonder. So I did a ten second Google search.

And guess what? The gut reaction was correct. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which runs his famous Virginia estate, Monticello, says that quote is not from Jefferson. It’s spurious:

This quotation has not been found in any of Thomas Jefferson’s writings.

Evidently, it’s a mixing of mostly an Ayn Rand statement, coupled with a few words of Jefferson’s dropped in for good measure. And it’s making the rounds on Twitter as his thought. So beware:

Screen capture of Twitter.
Screen capture of Twitter.

This is not a question of my opinion. It’s about easily established fact being twisted, leading to hardened ongoing error when others down the road pick it up and in turn pass it along. For all that’s good about it, there we see an example of an instance social media can also be a misleading mess.

Screen capture of Twitter.
Screen capture of Twitter.

If you happen to have specific personal knowledge and ever encounter something like that, politely raise your hand and point it out. True, no one may listen to you. But at least you’ll have said it.

Have a good start of the week, wherever you are in the world. 🙂


  1. I remember that tweet and thinking the style wasn’t Jefferson, maybe not even 18th century, but now you got me going 🙂 turns out it’s a blend of some of his phrases, and the misquote popularized by right wing host Glenn Beck http://www.redstate.com/diary/barrypopik/2010/01/31/origin-myth-of-the-lobbyist-glenn-beck-uses-another-fake-thomas-jefferson-quote/ actually was written in 2000 http://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/the_two_enemies_of_the_people_are_criminals_and_government/

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    • If there is one thing I despise – and I’m pretty mild-mannered – it’s messing with what someone has said. If you don’t like a political policy, etc., so on, feel free to oppose it. But at least develop an original thought in doing so.

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