On Writing for Others

On Writing for Others

I don’t have any exceptional talents. I’m reasonably good at several things, but unfortunately – or maybe fortunately – I don’t have a talent with a capital T. Among the things I am reasonably good at, on balance I’m probably the best at writing.

Not writing as in literature, I’m not thinking anything fancy or worthy. I don’t even mean writing in the sense of this blog, which I’m obviously writing as a non-native speaker and always in a hurry. I mean quite functional, almost boring skills of drafting a speech or speaking points or an article. I think it’s because writing these types of texts demands not only reasonably good stylistic skills, but an ability to analyse big amounts of information and distill them into manageable messages. This intersection of analysis and rhetoric has always been my sweet spot.

I’ve written for a couple of Prime Ministers, a pretty wide selection of ministers and a few other VIPs. Some of them have been extremely rational, some with a poetic style, some almost painfully shy, some extremely good at writing themselves. I’m sure I’ve not always been successful, but I’ve enjoyed it most of the time. There’s a character (Rachel Sexton) in Dan Brown’s thriller Deception Point, who works as an analyst for the NRO and is known for her gisting skills*. In my head, I’m a combination of her and Toby Ziegler.**

People are often dismissive or disappointed when they realise that politicians have speechwriters and PR-people who prepare their words. This is seen as proof of the fundamental rottenness of the system, evidence of insincerity and inauthenticity. Usually it’s also considered a flaw in the character of the politician, as he or she is expected to be great at writing.

Now, I’m the first one to admit that I LOVE people who are good with words, who can write a killer speech or, even better – a book (witness me fan-girling over Obama here). Over the years of close politician-watching, it has become clear to me, however, that this ability has little to do with being a good politician. And even in case they can write their own stuff, I prefer that they don’t – at least most of the time.

Allow me to explain. A government-level politician has several speaking engagements a week, usually at least once a day. There are bigger speeches maybe once a week or once a month, depending on the specific post. Not to mention op-eds, replies to journalists, speaking points for meetings, Facebook posts, tweets and so on. Writing all this is a full-time job, sometimes several full-time jobs (a big speech usually takes weeks to prepare). I don’t want the leaders of my country – or any other country, for that matter – to spend their time on this. I want them to spend time on the asylum seekers, economic situation and cyber security, not on the quest for the perfect quote or fussing over commas.

People are uneasy about politicians using other people’s words and that’s completely understandable. One has to keep in mind, though, that the role of the writer in this situation is not to impose a story on the politician, but to capture what he or she was going to say anyway. In an ideal scenario, the writer is intimately familiar with the politician’s philosophy, policies and style. And obviously, the politician in question would be involved, too: from the very first brief throughout multiple drafts to the final delivery, when everything can still be changed.

I’m not entirely sure why I felt compelled to rant – or vaguely ramble – about this. Maybe because these assignments (it’s not my only or main job) can be lonely and the big ones are usually draining. There is always time pressure and you end up physically and mentally exhausted. Even more importantly, you end up without words – you have used them all up for something you have to give away. And then you sit there, empty, and need to find a way to get going again. Possibly by writing a rambly rant.

*I know, I find inspiration in strange places.
**I also know that I’m no Toby Ziegler, but I need inspiration to get into the zone.


Add yours
  1. 1

    I quite often read your blog, although I usually have nothing to add to the conversation. This however resonated with me. Translating, like writing, is both creative and very analytical. You have to get those transformations right, and you have to create a coherent and readable text in your own language. This can be very hard. Only people doing this work understand how tough and draining it can be. Don’t get me wrong, I love it, far more than I thought I would, but it’s not easy. And it is essentially a lonely job. Which I don’t mind actually. After having spent so many years doing work where I am constantly surrounded by people making demands of me the quietness translating brings me, is a relief. Another discovery I made was even though I’m usually not easily lost for words, is that after some 8 hours or so of dealing with language it seems my brains shuts down in that area, and I struggle to even get a sentence together. Your rambly rant was appreciated!

    • 2

      Dear Austenfan, good to see you. I whole-heartedly agree regarding translating: I’ve never done it professionally, but I have to do it quite a bit as part of my job and it’s extremely difficult. I had to edit the translation of an important 50-page document recently and it almost killed me. I can totally see that this would be something you excel at, though. You have an amazing feel for languages, but also an incredibly sharp intellect, so it’s the perfect combo. I’m glad you enjoy it.

  2. 3

    I appreciate getting an insider view on writing for politicians. I have absolutely no issue knowing that public officials have talented people writing for them. As you write- it’s a full time job. What I do have issue with is journalists using the words of PR people. I have worked in several NGOs where my writing appeared as the work of journalists. I read somewhere that around 30% of what we read in newspapers is actually copy written by PR. That’s scary.
    And Austenfan- I’ve done some translation work and find it so incredibly difficult to find the right words, mood, and tone that the original piece tries to convey. Unless you’ve done it yourself, you can’t understand how difficult it actually is.

    • 4

      As a PR-person, I’m of course happy when they do that 🙂 The goal is always to write in a way the best news reporter would, so that your version becomes the definite one, as it’s difficult to improve upon – at least within the parameters of the news format.

      But I know what you mean, of course. To be fair, this is less about the lack of filter by journalists (although there is that, too, and often in beauty journalism) and more about the way journalism in general operates these days. If you have to produce multiple stories on unrelated topics a day, there is simply no time to focus on anything and produce a proper article from scratch. I seriously do not envy journalists working today, it’s an industry facing fundamental issues. OK, so is politics, but in a different way.

  3. 5

    I think you are severely underestimating yourself (as smart, beautiful and capable people tend to?!). You are exceptionally knowledgeable in the field of skin care, fashion AND literature – which shows that your greatest Talent, if one can say so, is perseverance. You are wise beyond your years AND you have a child. I am green with envy! 😀

    • 6

      Hah! Thank you for your lovely words. I’m not really a modest person, it’s more that my bar for “talented” is quite high and therefore I don’t qualify myself.

  4. 9

    I know nothing about this subject, so this was a fascinating read. I’m always interested to see what you’re reading (latest Baldwin recommendation noted) and I really enjoy your style of writing, and have been missing your more political musings, so this was a treat: reading, writing, politics and professionalism all wrapped up!

    P.S. finally got round to Joseph Roth and The Hotel Years. Parts of it were so close to The Radetzky March that I felt like I was plunging back into that world instead (a good thing, but so melancholy), and the combination of observation, analysis and compassion seem to be typical of Roth. Have begun a Stefan Zweig essay on Montaigne now. I used to think of Zweig and Roth as being more or less the same sort of writer (history, Europe, melancholy, travel, introspection) but at present Roth strikes me as being more interested in life, which seems like a better way of responding to global madness. Not to criticise Zweig – I haven’t read much of him yet – but Roth’s tenderness is inspiring.

    • 10

      I always like this kind of behind-the-scenes thing. I mean, I understand this is not quite White House level, but hopefully still interesting for some people 🙂 It’s probably inevitable that if you’ve been doing something for a long time, you form thoughts about it. And in my case, I of course also want to share!

      I haven’t read much Zweig (I have read some), but one of my best reading buddies recently raved about him, so I might need to change that. Roth is quite wonderful and I feel it’s a good time to read him. And I do recommend Baldwin! I just read his Giovanni’s Room as well and that was some book, too. I liked The Fire Next time more and felt that despite some of the content being specific for the times, it felt entirely current. Giovanni seemed a tiny bit more dated, but at the same time it was such a bold, radical book at the time that it still astonishes me. Both are also slim, so don’t take much time to read.

  5. 11

    Great post, thank you. One of the best books I’ve read in recent months is Yanis Varoufakis’s Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment (and I simply assumed he wrote it). I really recommend it. I was very taken with several things: the way his personality, intelligence, emotions and point of view dominate – so it is not some bland reportage of events. I liked the skill which which he used story-telling, anecdote and historical events to capture and convey the complexity, tension and frustration of his experience as finance minister. It’s an incredibly powerful book in terms of the ‘message’ but also a beautifully crafted book so that it maintains a fluidity in its structure, allowing ideas to flow and challenge. Really good. Think you might like it?

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