How Does One Become A Political Speechwriter?
October 30, 2015 8:00 AM   Subscribe

I happen to know somebody who is a wonderful writer, a recent honors-in-English graduate of a great college, who writes terrific blog posts about politics as well as many Facebook posts on political issues. He's currently working at his first job -- copyediting for a publisher. How might he get into the field of political speech writing? I assume you pick a candidate you'd like to write for -- but do you approach that candidate directly, or...what?
posted by DMelanogaster to Work & Money (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I suspect the answer will depend on what country you're in. I knew a couple of speechwriters for Cabinet Ministers in the UK a few years ago. Both of them were on the Civil Service Fast Stream programme (accelerated careers for graduates thought to have high potential) and these were relatively early-career jobs for both of them - we were in our mid-20s and one of them was writing speeches for the Chancellor. (It was a bit mind-boggling for those of us who were just about pulling ourselves out of the mire of post-graduation temping into our first office jobs). They've since gone on to do other, more senior jobs within the Civil Service.

But if you're in the US I suspect that will be different, as I think your civil servants are more likely to be appointed by politicians, whereas ours are permanent, non-political appointments. (The politicians I refer to above probably also had separate speechwriters for nakedly party-political stuff; the civil servants wrote the speeches related to their office).
posted by penguin pie at 8:11 AM on October 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's more than being a good writer with a grasp of politics. Personality and charisma come into play in political speechwriting. You have to be an intellectual match to the person you're writing for. You need to be a lion-tamer and challenge them on ideas. You also have to possess the same values and instincts they do.

Politics is also not about money, at least when starting out. The policy and communications staff are typically doing it because they are on a mission, and getting paid well is secondary to that mission. They are the people who work long hours with little or no pay. They're people who have joined and have committed to a particular political community or movement, typically at a local level.

Or perhaps a pol and a writer/ideas person will have established a partnership and bond early on, say in college. And so trust develops over time.

So you have to be part of the movement sharing in a sense of mission and participating in a community. You have to be bright and appear to others around you as being bright.

On the other side of the fence there are communications staff in government, hired to write news releases, plan events and write very boring speeches for the minister or the department secretary or whatever. These are not political jobs, and you don't need political connections to do them.

You typically need some sort of PR certification, and getting the certification is a good way to join the community of PR professionals and eventually get a job.
posted by Nevin at 8:11 AM on October 30, 2015 [7 favorites]

I think it'd be rare for someone with no experience to immediately jump into a speechwriting job. You're more likely to work your way up from a communications or media intern/volunteer for a political campaign. The pay is not good (sometimes not existent).
posted by Wretch729 at 8:13 AM on October 30, 2015 [8 favorites]

(Assuming this is in the US...)

Start at the bottom. You probably won't be able to get a job with a national campaign immediately (unless you're like, Chelsea Clinton). As with any campaign jobs, start small-time locally. Get involved in local political parties, get to know the local players, and volunteer for local campaigns (these positions will almost always be unpaid). Once you've established yourself in the local scene, try to get a job as a legislative aide to a state legislator. Ideally, you'd get lucky and find a state legislator who's moving up rapidly (the obvious example being Barack Obama in the early 2000s). In all likelihood, you'll have to work for a few before you really move up, but starting at the state legislature is good because you get to meet a lot of people. Political jobs typically involve a lot of networking, so getting influential people to recommend you is key: the county party chairman, lower elected officials, etc. Once you're working in the field, then you can show off your writing skills. Lower-level elected officials typically don't have dedicated speechwriters, so having a staffer with good verbal skills usually makes that person the de factor writer.

I also don't think it would be a bad idea to keep a blog. Two advantages: 1) you prove your ideological bona fides (especially in the Republican party, open positions typically want some evidence of dedication to the conservative movement), and 2) you display your writing skills publicly.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:35 AM on October 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

I know several political speechwriters, including some who have worked in the White House, and have worked in political communications myself. There are several ways to get into speechwriting, but as you can imagine, it is extremely competitive. Since he's a recent grad, I'd suggest one of two routes to start:

1. Get a job on a political campaign, ideally as a press/communications assistant. These kinds of roles can be hard to get with no political experience, but it does happen. More likely is that he would be hired as a field organizer and then move into communications.

2. Move to DC and get a job with a consulting firm or large think tank, again likely in a more general communications/press junior role. There's even a whole consulting firm dedicated to political speechwriting, but any consulting firm or large think tank will give him a decent start.

From either of these places, he could potentially move into speechwriting, but also, political communications is a HUGE field with a lot of different paths that are not necessarily obvious to those outside the field. So once he starts working in comms, he may find something else that he wants to pursue instead.

He should expect to start at the bottom and spend a while working his way up.

As for how to find jobs, NOI Jobs and Jobs That Are Left are the two big listserves for political jobs on the progressive/Dem side. Lots of campaigns are staffing up now for 2016.
posted by lunasol at 8:45 AM on October 30, 2015 [9 favorites]

I work in government outside the US, and from what I know about the political speechwriters in my circle, most of them got their start not on campaigns but with already elected/appointed officials or on the non-partisan staff of a government office - spending a few years drafting correspondence, briefs, meeting material, and speaking notes before working their way up to speechwriting. If this is a route that makes sense where you are, the young man would look for any communications positions being advertised in municipal, state/provincial, or federal government.
posted by northernish at 9:40 AM on October 30, 2015

I have no idea how to get the job, but knowing someone who wrote several major speeches for a US Senator, I think besides being a good writer with a grasp of the subject that being able to write in that candidates voice and being consistent in voice from previous speeches is critical to success.
posted by AugustWest at 9:41 AM on October 30, 2015

My sister used to be a speechwriter. She got the job by interning with the press office of the candidate's campaign while she was a college student. Fortunately for her, the candidate won, and she was able to parlay her work into an entry-level job working for the same people after she graduated from college.
posted by phoenixy at 11:00 AM on October 30, 2015

Everything that Nevin said, and, yes, you have to start at the bottom. Probably with no pay.

Being a great writer is not enough. For speeches, it is critical that you are able to write in your boss's voice, so you have to be able to pick that up. Not everyone can.
posted by jgirl at 11:51 AM on October 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't guess Barton Swaim's career path is typical, but his book details how one speechwriter got into it.
posted by box at 11:52 AM on October 30, 2015

Through a set of circumstances that are possibly way too complicated to explain, I had occasion to ask about whether I would be able to qualify for a role as a speechwriter for a former British Secretary of State (in his subsequent role as the president of an NGO). I was politely and kindly told that while I was indeed a fine writer, I'd have to have a MUCH deeper background in and knowledge of international relations.

Being a good writer isn't necessarily the only qualification for speechwriting, nor the most important. Not unless you get in on the ground level with a guy that's running for local mayor in a seat-of-his-pants campaign or something, and he wins and brings you in as an advisor and then hires you when he runs for governor and you both work your way up or something. But going to a politician cold, when you have no prior experience, probably ain't gonna work.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:03 PM on October 30, 2015

I believe the established procedure for someone trying to break into speechwriting but lacking the sort of exquisite pedigree, educational and otherwise, that gets you jobs in DC is to be a mega-volunteer on a local (municipal, county-level, or state legislature) campaign. Get involved in the campaign early — no, earlier than that — no, earlier — you want to be showing up for campaign meetings when there's only the candidate and like three other people in the room with you — and then volunteer to do whatever work the campaign needs (phone banking, flyering, door knocking, etc.) for eight to ten hours a day every day until the election, in the hopes of either getting hired as staff should your candidate win, or making the kind of connections that might get you on staff for a state legislature member should your candidate not win.

Unless your friend is coming out of Harvard or Yale and already has made connections there with campus political organizations, they will have to accept that there's no way for them to break into bourgeois electoral politics as a profession that doesn't involve tremendous amounts of grueling work with no guarantee whatsoever of success.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:54 PM on October 30, 2015

Of the speech writers I know, none are full time. And these are people that work for governors, Congresspeople, and state reps. They work full time on policy or constituent relations where you have to spend a significant amount of time writing for a larger audience. Elected politicians have working relationships with staffers that they know are good writers that write in their voice.

So, set expectations what a job like this really is. There is a lot of writing to be done, but not much of it is stirring speeches.
posted by munchingzombie at 2:13 PM on October 30, 2015 [4 favorites]

Yes, the president et al has a "speech writer"; but the vast majority of speech writing done in politics is done by full time staffers. Speech-writing is a small component of what they do. With no experience, being intimately involved with party politics and campaigning is necessary.

This is not a job path for everyone; if he hasn't already, he needs to join a party and work on a campaign. There's nothing like a brush with practised politics to put you off it for life!
posted by smoke at 2:43 PM on October 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

The first step: Volunteer or work on a candidate's campaign. Do communications. Help with writing. Honestly, I think any advice that doesn't start with working on a campaign is probably wrong.

If he has no experience, then either he needs to go to a very small, local campaign where he will probably get to play a bigger role because they are just going to need people. Or, he can volunteer for a statewide race and try to get hired and network. Either way, having some experience is helpful in the world of politics. If the candidate wins, staff is usually made up of the campaign staff. But it may take more than one political cycle to get a job like that -- there are only so many, and they will go to the people there longest and in the most important roles first. Interns, for instance, are far less likely.

It's not impossible though. I worked in a well-known, high-profile statewide campaign and a college kid was a communications intern. He was later hired as a press assistant for the campaign. And now he's a deputy press secretary for a U.S. Senator in Washington after the candidate won.

Speechwriter jobs where that's all that person does, I must warn you, are pretty rare. Generally whoever is writing speeches is working on overall messaging and communications.
posted by AppleTurnover at 4:55 PM on October 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

« Older Replacing a lost/stolen Netherlands passport   |   Make it so I can't read your answers to this... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.