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.