We conclude our profile of our speechwriter at the FAA with an exploration of her ideas concerning the importance of structure and certain approaches to style that would intrigue any classical rhetorician. Her discussion of certain outlining techniques performed in the midst of her writing process might be of particular interest to writing teachers.
The subject felt that “structure and logic” were the most important elements for a speech writer to bring to the process, because the speaker “can’t go back and re-read it and look back and, I mean, it just has to be so, have such a logical organization.” She backed up this assertion with a quote from a book on speech writing by Peggy Noonan, the renowned speechwriter for President Reagan: “The most moving thing in the speech is its logic.” (This was clearly an appeal to authority by our subject, although she also shared with our Washington Metro subject a disapproval of speech writers becoming celebrated for their contributions. “I always think that speech writers should be kind of anonymous. … You know, it’s not your job to [take credit]; anyway, I’m kinda stuffy that way.”) The subject traced her ability to link a speech’s structure with its intent, as illustrated by the Aero Club speech, to the necessity in high school of doing well on the “subject A exam,” an hour-long writing test during which students had to expound on a given topic. At stake was the avoidance of the “bone head English” course when matriculating at one of the University of California campuses. “I had a high school English instructor, … who had us write an essay every day in class. And his whole point was structure. And then …, once I became a speech writer at U.S. Air, I took some workshops and they always tell you … you gotta tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em and then you tell them and then at the end you tell them what you told them.” When I remarked that this approach sounded much like the “old five-paragraph theme,” she insisted speech writing was a “little different…. Because you’re writing for the ear, so it’s even more structure.” The subject also retained the lessons of another high school teacher who made the students outline. She said that, like me, she would do paragraph outlines when “stuck” but also will “take one sheet of paper and write down everything I know on the topic, you know, and I’ll see what order it should go in.” And, if “really stuck,” she would actually resort to what is often called a formal outline, with the numeric itemizing of topics.
(While this set of influences and practices might give contemporary composition teachers pause, we should remember two things. One is that her selection of outlining strategies appears based on where she is in the process, and her determination of how “stuck” she is at a given moment may be closely linked to considerable experience and practice. Secondly, while her prototypical structure does sound like the kind too often drilled into high schoolers as the sole best strategy for surviving high-stakes writing examinations, we must also remember she associates its necessity more with speech-making than other forms of writing. Moreover, to link the structure with the speech’s intent is of prime importance, something that both high school students and their teachers may be too often likely to forget when confronted with the need to prepare for writing tests.)
In keeping with her emphasis on structure and a speech’s internal logic, the subject focused stylistically on such techniques as anaphora, used to great effect at the Aero Club, and what she called “guideposts” that would consciously identify for the audience where they were in the speech. For example, through repetition of an initial phrase the Aero Club speech sets up a contrast between the world of aviation on September 10, 2001 and that same world following the events of the next day. Again, the overriding idea was that she was writing for the ear. “I will live and die by the triad. And I will purposely come up with Tom, Dick, and Harry cause that’s always, you know, Larry, Mo, and Curly, that’s always effective. … Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Alliteration, shorter sentences, short paragraphs, repetition …, vivid imagery.” (Other subjects also spoke of the “magical threes,” a stylistic technique as old as rhetoric itself and one they may have heard emphasized through instruction or simply absorbed through its prevalence in our own political oratory, the most famous exemplar being Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”*) The subject’s only experience as a public speaker herself had been recent, while serving as president of the Parent Teacher Association at the high school where her daughters attended. “When issues come up that deal with the school board, you go to the school board meeting and you give your public statement and it has to, it can’t be longer than three minutes. I had so much fun writing my public statements and the school board members really liked me because they knew at least it would be entertaining when I came.”
This exchange led to the subject’s out loud wondering about helping kids learn to write in future, after an episode in which a fifth grade teacher acquaintance had her talk to the teacher’s class about the importance of rewriting and editing. The interview concluded with her hearkening back to her high school instruction and the importance of constant practice, the exercising of the “writing muscle.”
*West, Michael and Myron Silberstein. “The Controversial Eloquence of Shakespeare’s
Coriolanus—an Anti-Ciceronian Orator?” Modern Philology 102 (2005): 307-31.