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The Speechwriting Life: "Writing Is Work"

Over a 28 year career as a speechwriter, Peter Quinn wrote for two New York Governors and five successive Chairmen of Time Inc./Time Warner/AOL Time Warner. Today, Quinn is a successful and prolific novelist, currently working on what will be his fifth published novel.

You don’t thrive as a speechwriter for nearly three decades without learning a thing or two along the way. Quinn generously shared his insights into speechwriting during a recent telephone conversation.

It was in 1979, when Quinn was a PhD student in history at Fordham, that he first started writing speeches. He’d written some articles for America Magazine, and received a call from an aide to Hugh Carey, New York’s Governor.

Quinn’s writing had been noticed, and he was asked to pen a speech for Carey, who was not happy with his speechwriters at the time. The speech was a hit and Quinn was hired full-time to write for the Governor. “Twenty eight years later,” Quinn laughed, “I retired from speeches—but I still didn’t get the doctorate.”

Quinn spent about six and a half years writing for Carey and Carey’s successor, Mario Cuomo. He once summarized part of that experience as follows: he was “living alone in a hotel room in Albany and getting to know the midnight cleaning crew in the capitol.” The stress of the job took its toll—“My hair fell out, and I developed chronic back pain.”

On those years in politics, Quinn said, “I really do believe that political speechwriting is for a young person—it’s very physically taxing. There are the campaigns; there’s the pressure of how everything you write is for the next day. You’re constantly reading the papers to see how you’re doing. You’re editing speeches on airplanes. Politics was a great training ground, and I recommend it highly, but it’s no place to live your life.”

Quinn recalled how, early on in his time with Governor Carey, he once had three hours to write a speech. “And I needed to find the ‘hook’ to help tell a story through the speech. I couldn’t find it.

“Someone else in the office walked by, saw me and said, ‘You don’t look so busy—can you help me with a project?’ And I explained that I was working very hard, harder than she could imagine—because I couldn’t go see the Governor with nothing.”

Quinn continued: “In other lines of work, people can ask ‘can I have another week on this?’ But a speechwriter cannot do this. It’s cut and dry. You have to produce, or you’re out of a job. The great thing about speechwriting is that you never wait for the muse—your job is to show up and write. And writing is work. I don’t know how this romantic view of writing came about, because writing is hard work.”

“So speechwriting teaches you persistence and discipline. I never thought it was easy. You know what your job is, when you have to complete it, and who you working are working for—and whether you did it wrong or right, you’ll hear about it,” Quinn added.

***

In 1985, Quinn left politics for the corporate world, becoming a speechwriter at what was then Time, Inc. “Corporate life has its high pressure moments, like the Time Warner or AOL merger. But you have more notice on writing assignments most of the time, compared to politics. Your audiences are usually smaller and more specific, like shareholders.”

Quinn’s background in political speechwriting came in handy at Time, especially when it came to finding the elusive hook. “The outside perception was that the Chairman of Time should be able to speak about anything – including arms control, for example.”

“Being a speechwriter—that’s not necessarily a job many people want,” Quinn said. “Tell people they have to write a speech, and they may panic. They feel the terror of the empty page. Or tell them, ‘this is a great draft, but we’re going in a different direction.’ Or throw them into a meeting where multiple experts talk at once around a table to provide input on a speech. It’s like saying, ‘here’s nine pounds of scrap metal—go make us a marble statue out of it.’”

The job title Quinn wanted to avoid while at Time? Manager. “I was happy in my job as a speechwriter. I never wanted to manage people—I always thought managing people was a full-time job in itself. I wanted to be working with words. So when I was asked to manage a team of speechwriters, I threatened to quit.”

Thanks to his strong work ethic, Quinn was well on his way to launching himself as a novelist before he left speechwriting – a transition he has described on his blog.

***

Quinn has also blogged about how, during his career as a speechwriter, he drafted all the speeches he worked on first in longhand. “I don’t romanticize handwriting,” Quinn said when asked about this, “but a typewriter just made things look too settled to me. A first draft always stinks. So I preferred to write by hand, because I could refine my thoughts more easily.

“And when I had completed a draft, I would read through it with help from an assistant. I had two great assistants. Reading the speech out loud meant we picked up more, since I was writing for the ear. And then I’d go back and make changes based on what we found.”

And whoever you write speeches for, Quinn said, one surefire way to weaken a draft is to insert references that the speaker would not use in day-to-day speech.

“Writing effectively for someone else is not just about that individual’s language. It can be more about knowing some of the life experiences that shaped the person,” he said.

“Whoever you write for, listen to that person speak extemporaneously, and you’ll get insights into his or her background.

“Find out what that person has read. Who does the speaker feel comfortable quoting? I wrote for someone who liked poetry, so I could insert some Yeats into his speeches. This will help you grasp what sounds like something a particular speaker would actually say. And you can avoid drafting something that will sound as if it’s been stuck in the speaker’s mouth,” he added.

Quinn pointed to his experience writing for Governors Carey and Cuomo. “All three of us grew up in New York City neighborhoods that weren’t that different. We all attended parochial schools and Catholic colleges. And we each came from families with a multi-generational link to the Democratic Party. That meant I could, from that common experience, draft speeches incorporating references both would identify with.”

This awareness of the power of matching the right references to a speaker’s life experience is something Quinn would apply again and again in his long corporate speechwriting career – including when he wrote for people who came from backgrounds much different than his own.

Quinn may not have finished that doctorate in history—but when it comes to insights into speechwriting, he’s earned the equivalent of a PhD (perhaps two) through his practical experience.

To learn more about Peter Quinn’s novels, visit his personal website: www.newyorkpaddy.com

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