Oh those ubiquitous writing coaches and workshop leaders. They do mean well, don’t they?
They send out invitations to writing classes and seminars which invariably suggest that one of the keys to better writing is to trim, trim, trim.
Now, in fairness, if you look at the some of these closely it’s hard to argue with anything there. They provide great tips like “avoid passive voice,” “refer to people as ‘who’ not ‘what’,” and avoid words like “currently.” Good stuff. Solid advice.
But they almost always include instructions to prune unnecessary words. Cut out the repetition. Spare the poor consumer your excess prose.
In short, would-be writers hear a frequent and unfortunate message that writing – all writing – can be improved by the knife. That is advice you’ll never hear from me about speechwriting.
To the contrary, good speeches are expansive. Good speeches need air to breath. Good speeches repeat important points and rhetorical phrasing. Good speeches verbally and mentally separate important points and give the audience enough time to marinate slowly in ideas. Good speeches have rhythm and dance on the ear as a melodic song. Good speeches care more about the emotional connections that can only occur through careful – but often capacious – verbal expressions than they care about brevity for the sake of brevity.
Yes, all of our work – whether it is writing designed for the ear or the eye – can use a good dose of editing. There’s no good reason to use a $10 word, for example, when a 50-cent word will probably work better.
But writing for the ear is different than writing for the eye. Audiences can’t “re-hear” what a speaker says unless the speaker repeats it. Have a jackhammer loudly pounding the ground right outside your speech venue? You better repeat your most important points because there’s a good chance your audience will be distracted.
Indeed, good speech writing does (at least) two things concurrently. It reduces noise in the speech by being as clear, plain and understandable as possible. But it also mitigates noises and distractions that plague the audience’s ears and minds from outside.
It does that not by being necessarily succinct and pithy but by giving the listener the best opportunity to hear – and understand – the words just spoken. That enormous task takes time. It often takes repetition. And it most definitely requires a more comfortable and voluminous approach to language that is unique to the genre.So remember when you see those emails encouraging you to cut your writing that not all writing is created for the same audiences. Speeches are a different type of writing and require a different sensibility.