Editing and critique

Published on Sep 5, 2020

When the Continental Congress met in 1776 to review and revise the draft of the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin was sitting next to Jefferson. Franklin observed that Jefferson was distraught about what he referred to as "mutilations" to his precious draft. Franklin consoled Jefferson by telling him a story from his youth.

When Franklin was a young printer, a friend starting out in the hat-making business wanted a sign for his shop. The original sign read: "John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money." There was also a figure of a hat next to the text.

John showed the sign to his friends and asked for feedback. One friend noted the word "hatter" was not necessary because it was followed by the phrase "makes and sells hats" so it would be obvious that he's a hatter. Another friend observed that the word "makes" could be omitted because customers would not care who made the hats. A third friend thought the words "ready money" were useless because it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Every one who purchased expected to pay. After these suggestions, the sign read "John Thompson sells hats." 

Another friend read that and said, "Sells hats? Well, no one expects you to give them away. What is the use of that word?" The word "hats" was eliminated as well because there was a picture of a hat painted on the sign.

The final sign was reduced to "John Thompson" with a figure of a hat.

Anecdote from Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin An American Life