Use the lockdown to sharpen your wordsmith saw
I recently saw The Darkest Hour starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill and Lily James as his assistant. It instantly brought me back to my years of working as a speechwriter for the Philippine president.
That career milestone from seven years ago remains the hardest job I have ever had.
My key takeaway from the experience is that writing competence is secondary only to trust. Many people can write, but not all have a relationship with the principal. I was a junior writer at best when I jumped into the highest office of the land. My boss had not envisioned ever becoming the president, so when he was elected in 2010, we had to overcome new realities that were quite unexpected. He needed someone he could trust to help him with messaging and I happened to be that person.
I share this because our times seem to demand more from us. We are all in the same boat, regardless of race, gender and tax bracket. No one is spared by this pandemic, and the whole world is in flux. Many of us are weary with anxiety in our own isolated bunkers. Some are heroically risking their lives to save lives. Everyone is affected on some level.
We need to turn these worries around and make good use of our time in seclusion. We do that by elevating our game. The upside of this lockdown is that writers like you and I are already accustomed to the silent, solitary milieu required by our craft. No time is necessary for adjusting to an unfamiliar work setting.
The speechwriting process I am about to share has helped with my writing beyond my political stint, which I hope you find useful enough to include in your writing toolbox.
Get to know your subject well
In speechwriting, familiarity and professional intimacy with the person you are ghostwriting for are paramount. It is nearly impossible to write on behalf of someone you are meeting for the first time. I was an aide for three years before my boss became the president, and in that time, he generously gifted me with his mentorship. He patiently zeroed in on my pathetic drafts. He shared his personal history through memorable anecdotes. He invited me to some of his meetings as an observer. He got to know me as a person and even attended one of my gigs. The more he got comfortable with me, and vice versa, the better the quality of the statements we churned out together.
When you write your think-pieces, talk about stories you know well. The best ones are those stories that can only come for you, such as your relationships or your rags-to-riches journey. This is what makes reading biographies so fascinating — you get the visceral experience of someone’s adventure without getting hurt. Be authentic in your writing so it reads like a biography that other people would want to read and learn from.
Know your audience
Everyone wants a piece of the politician so he gets invited to infinite soirees. My boss is an introvert, so wining and dining was his least favorite part of the job. The event would have to be extremely critical to the success of his policy agenda before we could make him go.
This demands an appointment vetting system, which is an entire department in Malacanang Palace (our White House equivalent). Each invitation is sifted by finding out who the attendees are, the purpose of the event and if media would be present, among other things. Once an invitation is approved, the first thing the speechwriter will look for in the memo is who the audience will be.
If you have been writing for some time, you should already have some knowledge of your readers’ general profile, especially if you have already built a following from your website or mailing list. Google Analytics can tell you whether they visit your site or they found you on Facebook. I find that extremely helpful when writing and distributing my work. I know that the snappy posts I feature on Instagram will not work for my network on LinkedIn, in the same way that my informal writing on Medium will not suit the more formal requirements of a UN report. Find out who reads your stuff and then calibrate your writing according to their language.
Speed and precision are essential
A speechwriter needs to work fast because the nation’s problems develop in a split second. If you postpone action, someone could literally die. I cannot tell you how many times I have walked by my boss’ side taking notes as he uttered edits to his speech. I cannot tell you enough that I lived on less than 6 hours of sleep almost every day for three years. If I were to summarize my past life, I would say I was a heart attack waiting to happen, spared only by healthy habits.
Over time, I got a better groove on things. I was already a touch-typer, but to be precise, I always had my recorder turned on when permissible as soon as my boss’ speaks, whether it’s for a speech, an ambush interview, or a meeting. This helps with validating statements more quickly and accurately, and I kept all these records. Eventually, I became comfortable with speed writing, speed note-taking and speed transcribing.
At the minimum, to write as quickly as a speechwriter you should be a touch-typer. It saves time and that is quite easy to learn with free tools such as Typing Club. At the maximum, a good memory is a vital asset because it enables you to cite examples and anecdotes quickly to enhance your writing. There are ways to improve memory such as transcendental meditation which I do regularly, or this free masterclass from Mindvalley.
One of the casualties of a speechwriter’s extremely demanding life was the absence of time for literature, particularly fiction and poetry. All I read at the zenith of my political career was local news, foreign news, and non-fiction. I realize now how that may have stymied my writing, rendering some of my work lifeless.
I learned from Ray Bradbury the importance of reading poetry to give your writing wings:
“Read poetry every day of your life. Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition. It keeps you aware of your nose, your eye, your ear, your tongue, your hand.
And, above all, poetry is compacted metaphor or simile. Such metaphors, like Japanese paper flowers, may expand outward into gigantic shapes. Ideas lie everywhere through the poetry books, yet how rarely have I heard short story teachers recommending them for browsing.” — from Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
Read just before you write so you have beautiful language still simmering in your head. Read the latest novel, but do not forego the classics. Read some poetry before you go to bed.
Store your notes in one place
The notebook is essential in the life of a speechwriter. It was practically tethered to my person at all times.
I use both my phone and a tangible notebook for documentation, although the latter is preferred. I remember more the things I had written by hand. But using an app like Evernote is vital in organizing random thoughts and storing them in one place.
I must admit that this is still a challenge for me because I refuse to pay for additional storage. I have screenshot notes on Google Photos, scribbles on OneNote, simplified articles on Evernote, work research on Zotero and a notebook per project. But I manage to make it work. I would still recommend that you store all your notes in one place because you do not want to spend precious time searching for reference materials. Most of your valuable time should only be used for writing.
Write about difficult subjects
A speechwriter has no choice but to be an advocate of human rights yesterday, a spokesperson for equal pay today, and a food security expert tomorrow. The real experts brief her on the subject matter and then she writes it in layman’s terms without abandoning her principal’s voice.
This practice encouraged me to write Food Waste, Climate And What We Can Change — in honor of my passion for food and nature. I could not have written this piece without first reading the 40+ page summary report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC).
This is not one of those articles that make a lot of money but its mere publication and curation is a testament to how policy wonks and scientists can make their work more palatable to the outside world. Their fondness for esoteric language may find a niche audience in the scientific journal community but the masses remain unaware of their contributions. You can help them by communicating their discoveries to a younger, tech-savvier, skimming-on-social media type reader. If influencers are going to broadcast their concern for the environment to their million+ followers, you can help make their tweet more informed through perhaps a link to your article and maybe even get new followers in the process. (Note: If you blog about complex social issues, please comment below so I can follow your work.)
Add humor to your writing
The best way to instantly captivate and win over a new audience is by making them laugh. Unfortunately, I can only consider myself occasionally funny, so it had to be my team of young, irreverent but talented speechwriters who handled this part well. The funnier lines they wrote almost always turned into sound bites that made it in the primetime news.
This is still a genuine struggle for me, but I find this article by Abel Chan very helpful in making light of things. If there is anything the world needs right now, it is a dose of humor to preserve our humanity in the midst of crisis.
Read your drafts aloud
Anything that goes on the teleprompter should have gone through me. That was the rule of thumb at our office because I was the one who had worked with the president the longest. I knew the words that he liked, disliked and mumbled. I knew where to put the slash to signal a pause. I can only do that when I read the final speech aloud.
This goes for your writing too. You have to make sure that you are speaking the language of your reader so that your message resonates and packs a punch. This is helpful to do while you are proofreading because you can also check for cadence and flow.
I must admit that I embarked on my blogging adventure last year with some trepidation. I used to write consistently on social issues such as poverty, hunger, corruption, and inclusive growth. I asked myself: Will blogging dilute the significance of the work I had done? Would it cramp my style? Would it lower my standards?
I realized soon enough that those preconceived notions were just products of my ignorance. As soon as I got comfortable with blogging, I discovered a real potential in bringing up serious issues that are important to me to a wider audience. Minimizing food waste at home can be a listicle. Scientific journals can be condensed into readable content. Your unique personal and professional experiences can inspire other people to focus on their growth.
I hope that these techniques will help you move the needle in your writing journey, now that we are all in forced isolation anyway. This is a rare opportunity to make our writing a tool for positive change, for others and for ourselves.