Political Writing Best Practices
Recently a student at Queens University, Stephen Crotty, reached out to The Campaign Workshop with questions for his paper on political writing. Stephen’s questions were really thoughtful and forced me think critically about some of the things I do when communicating for politics. Stephen kindly agreed to let us repost his questions and my responses as a 7 questions post.
What are the most prevalent genres of writing that workers in political campaigns encounter?
Studies have shown that a voter will look at a piece of direct mail for five seconds or less. As a result, the writing style for campaigns needs to be really short and succinct, and typically the shorter the better. Voters are busy people, so you need to make sure that whatever you’re writing, be it a piece of direct mail or a TV script, your main points are front and center. Studies also show that our brains can operate on autopilot and use shortcuts to digest a lot of the information we confront on a day-to-day basis. When a voter gets a piece of mail, that shortcut is typically the big, bold headline. If a voter reads the headline and is intrigued, they may give it a few more seconds of their time. If they read the headline and don’t find it interesting enough to engage with, your interaction with that voter is over in short order.
How is the question of appealing to audience/potential voters thought about while writing?
In my view, thinking about your audience is the most important element to writing for politics. For your political writing to be successful, you really do need to put yourself in the voters’ shoes. That’s why I’m constantly thinking about how my political writing will be interpreted when I’m drafting a piece of mail or a video script. I grew up in a small Midwest town and have recently moved back to the Midwest. I try to think about how people I grew up with or how my neighbors would digest what I’m writing. These are people who aren’t sitting in front of cable news all day; they’re out living their lives. To resonate with them, you really need to make sure what you’re talking about is tangible and explains what the real-world impact of a policy or issue is. I find that thinking about who you’re writing for also helps you get to the heart of an issue and why it actually matters. For instance, just talking about “Medicaid expansion” doesn’t really explain why the issue matters in the same way that “Making sure people don’t go broke when they get sick” does.
How is writing in your context different from writing in an academic setting?
Writing for academics and for politics have a number of differences, but they’re actually fairly similar in their overall structure. At the end of the day, they’re both about persuasion. My political writing often uses the same writing structure of laying out an argument and building a case for that argument. For instance, when I’m writing a piece of direct mail, I try to think of what the one-sentence thesis of that piece would be. That typically becomes the headline. Then I ask what are the supporting arguments that help make that case. Those are typically my sub-headlines. The body copy will then make the case for the supporting arguments, which in turn make the case for the thesis. Some of the big differences between academic and political writing that I see is that writing for politics is much, much shorter and you’re making a conscious effort to write in the way that’s approachable and relatable.
What is something that a lot of new workers struggle with when it comes to writing for campaigns?
Some people who join campaigns right out of college will be stuck in the college writing mindset. They may think more is better when it comes to the quantity of writing and can sometimes use phrasing you have to Google to understand. This goes into a larger issue that I’ve seen—in my view, some political science departments do a poor job of preparing people for what it’s like to work in politics after you graduate. If you want to work in politics, I recommend that you take an internship and try to learn about the political niche that you want to actually work in. For instance, if you want to run campaigns after you graduate, you should really consider taking some business classes, because campaigns (well-run ones, at least) really do operate a lot like a business. There’s also a world full of people out there who work in political data and developing the critically important data models that campaigns rely on. People interested in doing that should be taking statistics classes. Had I known what I’d be doing day-to-day when I was in college, I would have taken a lot more English classes and likely a few design classes.
How important are writing skills when looking at applicants to join your consulting team?
Depending on the job, writing skills can be critically important for our team. Using techniques we learned at the Management Center, we really have moved away from putting the same old clichés in our job descriptions and hiring process so we can hone in on the skills we’re actually looking for. For instance, when you may see a lot of job descriptions in politics, they will say that a 4-year degree is required. Instead, we try to think of what the actual skills we need someone to have, which often is the ability to write and communicate effectively. Having a 4-year degree doesn’t mean you can write; there’s a ton of people out there with 4-year degrees who can’t. On the flip side, there’s also a ton of people out there without degrees who are phenomenal writers. To get to the heart of what we’re actually trying to hire for, we’ve incorporated testing into our hiring process. If writing is a critical element to what we’re hiring for, we’ll set up a political writing test and actually ask the applicant to write based on a made-up scenario. This will help us judge the candidate based on their likely work product and allow us to compare apples-to-apples.
Do you feel that you still have more to go in terms of becoming a better writer, specifically as it relates to your job, or do you think you have got it mostly figured out by now? If the answer is the former, what are some possible areas of improvement?
Absolutely! We’re lucky to have a lot of really talented writers on our staff who I’m constantly learning new things from. One of my biggest goals is to inject more creativity into my political writing style. My favorite projects tend to be things that fall way outside the norm and don’t look like a political ad at all. My writing style also tends to be very “down to business,” whereas some of my colleagues are better at weaving in more fun and whimsical language. In the right scenario, I’ve seen this type of language be really disarming and resonate with people in a way something that’s presented in a more matter-a-fact manner does not.
How do you walk the line between favorable advertising and staying honest?
It’s critically important to make sure your political writing is accurate and factual. Sure, there are ways to “spin” an issue or subject matter. But the bottom line is that if you’re writing something that’s patently false and inaccurate, our clients will have to deal with the blowback, and it won’t help them achieve their goals. A lot of times when people think of negative ads, they’re thinking about independent expenditures. But it’s just as important that independent expenditure advertising be factual and accurate. One of the unwritten rules for independent expenditures is to “do no harm” to the candidate or issue you’re supporting. If an independent expenditure is saying something that’s just not true, its likely to drum up a negative news story or backlash on social media that will have an adverse effect on what you’re trying to accomplish. To make sure we’re on the right side with our claims, we work with our clients to compile full backgrounders and research books. When we’re incorporating a really hard-hitting claim, we will often cite that claim right on the piece so the reader can go to an outside source to validate it. We also have a great elections attorney who we will very often run things by to make sure we’re in the clear and are not giving inaccurate depictions.
Have other questions about political writing. Reach out to The Campaign Workshop and see if we can help!