Those of us who write for a living know that most books on “how to write” are far more for the benefit of the author than the reader; that is, they are often make-a-buck hardbacks for resourceful authors, dangled before people who prefer to imagine the writer’s life than to indulge in its air-conditioned torment and capriciously timed paydays.
The few “writing” books I find worth my time offer unique supporting material not available on the Internet, and encourage me to think about my work from a new perspective. On that basis, here are ten or so titles that every speechwriter—every writer, actually—can learn from, and even enjoy.
“The Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E.B. White. This comes first because by comparison everything else is mere ornament. “Strunk and White” is a lesson in clarity delivered with wit and brevity. You can’t read this and not become a better writer.
“Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History” by William Safire. This reference is a tour of styles in their eras, yet also a reminder that elements of persuasion and structure are as old as time. That points to the next title…
“The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric” by Sister Miriam Joseph. Speechwriting as a class or even a course of academic study is a recent phenomenon. Most of us who write speeches landed the job by insisting we could do it, not by studying technique. But speechwriting is in many ways nothing more than a sophisticated application of reasoning and expression. This dense and powerful book (which is enjoying a little renaissance just now) is a detailed tour of the function of language and communication, and the power of precision.
“The Political Speechwriter’s Companion“ by Robert Lehrman. This 2010 textbook is by novelist and former Al Gore speechwriter (and Ragan presenter) Bob Lehrman, who will be giving a few talks at the March speechwriter’s conference in Washington, D.C. Forget the title. This is a clear, even joyful guide to the mechanics of all speechwriting, with some down-to-earth direction on wordsmithing on top of it all. Speaking of wordsmithing…
“Tunesmith” by Jimmy Webb. Essayist Jay Nordlinger quotes an old professor of his: “You want to write better? See a ballet, listen to a symphony—get some art in you. Get some artistry in your prose.” Just so. Webb is among the most talented and successful songwriters of the last 60 years, and in this book he explains where his memorable turns of phrase come from—and he doesn’t prescribes simply waiting for the muse. Webb talks about poetry and prose in structural terms, and he attaches method to what most of us imagine to be only born-with-it inspiration.
“Save the Cat“ by Blake Snyder. Here’s a book on screenwriting that breaks down modern drama into points of a story, all of which build on the classic idea of tension and release. Snyder’s lesson for speechwriters is that prose gains color and, therefore, power when it exploits dramatic tension. Snyder shows step by step how to create drama in general and tension in particular, among many other lessons that the creative speechwriter will use over and over again.
Speech is performance—a form of acting. Speechwriters who understand this can better balance detail with emotion and will put into proper perspective (and practice!) what ought to be at the center of the craft, which is its often-ignored theatrical aspects. The best mainstream guide to this idea is also a delight to read: 2010’s “Theatre” by David Mamet, arguably the world’s greatest living playwright.
A few more to round out the list: Any joke book on the remainder table at Barnes & Noble is worth your money, because simple jokes are always in demand, and the Internet will lead you to the same few chestnuts over and over. “This Day in Business History” by Raymond Francis is a splendid collection of anecdotes that are perfect for introducing or illustrating any topic, while “Condemned to Repeat It” by Wick Allison, Jeremy Adams and Gavin Hambly explores, in essay form, several dozen historical incidents as demonstrations of lessons in business and life.
Finally, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman explains how the nature of communication is inseparable from its content. Written before the rise of the Internet, its psychological and sociological points are still true (and still disturbing) and important for all speechwriters to know.
A frequent presenter at Ragan conferences, Michael Long is a freelance writer and speechwriter in Washington, D.C., and an adjunct professor teaching writing and public relations at Georgetown University. His website is MikeLongOnline.com.