Yes We Can revise until our fingers bleed.

Full disclosure: my dad is a speechwriter for a cabinet secretary (I won’t tell you which one, but it’s not hard to find out if you really really REALLY want to know), so I know a little bit about How A Speech Is Made™. Everyone does it differently: some people let their writers do all the speechifying and don’t see the final product until they’re actually standing at the lectern; others prefer to write their own speeches, and use their writers as glorified proofreaders. The writers themselves don’t particularly tend to care which method their bosses prefer, so long as said bosses don’t mispronounce anything too egregiously and the paychecks clear every two weeks.

It is well-known amongst federal writers, politicos, and creepy stalkers that Barack Obama tends to have a lot of control over his own speeches. It’s also well-known that his senior speechwriter, Jon Favreau (not to be confused with the guy who directed Iron Man), is one of the brightest and most influential political writers in the world.

Fun fact: Jon Favreau began writing for Obama’s campaign when he was 26 years old. He was one of the guys responsible for the mantra “Yes We Can,” easily one of the most memorable slogans in American political history. When I was 26 years old, I was pretty stoked if I had a Facebook status update that got more than 10 likes in an hour. Or at ALL.


This kid makes esoteric socioeconomic pontification sound GOOD, brah. And he STILL won't pay off his student loans until he's 46.

As with any piece of writing worth a damn, dissecting the genesis of a presidential speech can teach us a lot about the mind(s) behind it. And whatever you think of Barack Obama, the general consensus is that he crafts one hell of a speech.

So I always get a little tingle in my writerly no-no parts when a shot of one of POTUS’ drafts ends up on the White House Flickr page. The most recent example is Pete Souza’s shot of Favreau hanging on to a draft of the 2012 State of the Union. It was available at a tantalizingly high resolution, so of course I had to download and rotate that bad boy to see what the President of the United States thinks is crappy enough to merit drawing lines through.


Click to embiggen.

Big red circle is my own addition.

So here’s the paragraph as it WOULD have read without any revisions:

These achievements have been the result of many things: Courage. Selflessness. Teamwork. At a time when many of our institutions have let us down, the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces have exceeded all expectations. They aren’t concerned with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences with one another. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together. They do their job.

Not too bad, right? Short, bold sentences, good use of the rule of three, lots of ethos and pathos. I’d feel pretty proud of that paragraph. A concise 66 words.

So then POTUS got a hold of it. Yes, that is his handwriting.

These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness, and teamwork of our men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces. At a time when too many of our institutions seem to let us down, they exceed all expectations. And perhaps that’s because they aren’t consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences with one another. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together. They do their job.

See what happened there? We’re up to 72 words now, but they’re better words than before. He axes the use of passive voice (“these achievements are” vs. “these achievements have been the result of”). He adds sympathetic language (“our instutitions seem to let us down”), though it muddies the subject of that second sentence (our institutions let us down, but they also exceed all expectations?). Our Armed Forces ARE concerned with personal ambition — of course they are, we all are — but they aren’t consumed by it like some of those bourgeois wankers on Wall Street.

Passive vs. active. “Concerned” vs. “consumed.” Do you begin to see where words matter?

Incidentally, the final draft, the speech as given on January 24, went like this:

These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness, and teamwork of America’s armed forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.

54 words, the shortest iteration yet. “They do their job” was left by the wayside. The first sentence was shortened and the subject of the second one was clarified. Short. Sweet. Strong.

This is not meant to be a political statement about Barack Obama’s super-sweet editing skills (though I admit it’s why I want to start punching whenever I hear the phrase “teleprompter-in-chief”). Rather, it’s an example of how “good” can ALWAYS be made better — no one is exempt.

Writers often lament that our work is like our children. In some respects, this is true: our writing can be loud, messy, and belligerent. It is typically birthed in a haze of tearful, drug-addled pain. Writers and parents are both likely to ask themselves, “WHY. WHY HAVE I DONE THIS.” But the difference between writing and children is this: while you may want to, you will probably never have to actually kill your own children.

If you’re lucky, they’ll grow up to be writers — in which event they’ll probably just off themselves.

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