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'Political Writing: A Guide to the Essentials'

Johanna Martinsson's picture

Now and then we discuss specific communication techniques on People, Spaces, Deliberation that are essential to bringing about change, and in particular, governance reform.  CommGAP also produced a series of technical briefs that demonstrate the theoretical underpinnings of communication concepts and tools, including topics such as change management, negotiation, and persuasion. It was therefore a great pleasure when a newly published book entitled Political Writing by Adam Garfinkle was brought to our attention.  As Garfinkle points out, political writing is about persuasion. It’s about persuading ideas and policies.

Garfinkle is the founding editor of The American Interest and a former speech writer for two U.S. Secretaries of State, namely, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. His latest book, Political Writing, is based on a course he taught to interns working in politics in Washington, DC. It’s a short and practical how-to guide that introduces the essential skills and rules in how to become a better writer and it covers different forms of political writing, including: the essay; the review; the op-ed; speech-writing, letters, toasts and ceremonials; memoranda; commission reports; and blogs.  In addition to rules, each chapter also includes recommended reading and exercises. The book also covers the fundamentals of rhetoric and polemic, and gives us a history lesson of persuasion and language, dating back to the Greek agora. It ends with a philosophy of editing.

Political writing is an art and a technique that can be mastered, but it takes practice, a lot of practice. Garfinkle talks about the importance of developing one’s internal standards of excellence, i.e. to drive our own writing to perfection.  To get there, he suggests reading a lot of good writing and practicing. The book provides a range of useful writing tips and how to avoid common pitfalls. In addition to appreciating good writing, Garfinkle discusses the importance of expanding our vocabulary, and to read more broadly as well as in-depth on particular topics.  Throughout the book he also emphasizes the importance of knowing your audience and knowing your purpose.

To me, the heart of the book is Chapter 4, The Essay. The rules in this chapter - 12 to be exact - focus on how to win arguments and win debates.  As Garfinkle points out, “Essays can be extremely powerful vehicles of persuasion. Not only can they convince readers, especially the minions of the uncommitted and still open-minded, on discrete policy issues, they can frame entire subjects in a way that predisposes a generation of thought about them.” [p. 79] Here, Garfinkle refers to two examples of influential essays: George Kenna’s 1947 essay, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” and Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay, “The End of History?"

To give you a flavor of the rules in this chapter, here are a few:

  • Pay great attention to the agenda of the debate. He who defines the issues and determines their priority is already well on the way to winning,
  • Never forget the uncommitted,
  • When you have a good point to make, keep making it, and
  • Know your opposition

The rules in the book are based on the author’s own experience and counseling of others.  For example, in his very first meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, he learned that purpose always comes first, and audience second. Here’s an excerpt. 

“The first time I went to in to see Secretary of State Powell to get his guidance for a particular speech, I asked him, “OK, sir, what do you want me to say?” As I asked this question, I sat with my pen ready for action, my notebook on my lap. He did not answer. Instead he fixed me eyeball to eyeball, and then slowly shook his head in dramatically intended disappointment. After a moment or two, he answered. “No, no, no, Adam. Never ask me what I want to say. Ask me what I want to do. Ask me what I want to achieve with this speech, or any speech. I hired you to figure out how to say it.” [p. 73 – 74]

There are a lot of insights like this throughout the book that makes it not only highly entertaining to read, but it also makes it easier to grasp concepts discussed.  If you want to become a better writer, or are seeking to “develop your internal standards of excellence,” this is a must read. And you really don’t have to be into politics. So how do we know when we have reached excellence? Well, according to Garfinkle, “When your efforts at rhetoric turn into poetry in the hearts and minds of your readers, that’s when you’ve made it, and made it big.” [p.86]

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These are actually really good tips. I have always wanted to expand my political writing skills and always left out the uncommitted which is very important now after you mention it. It is always important continuing on a good point.

I have a degree in political science and I can definitely recommend that book!

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