Pick Your Brains: Pride of Authorship

Many of us who read and post on this blog write professionally — some for ourselves, some for clients.

A friend of mine is a speechwriter for senior execs. She cares deeply about writing good speeches. She talks the issues, topics and audiences through with the exec, listens, elicits stories, then writes a draft. Several people, including the exec who will deliver the speech, weigh in. Like many of us, she can sometimes get defensive about her draft when changes are suggested. At minimum she wants to explain why she wrote it the way she did.

I think she needs to be able to compose with, then let go of, pride of authorship. A lot of professionals will throw a draft onto the table and say to the others who will look it over, “Have at it, there’s no pride of authorship here.” That’s an open invitation for critique and improvement.

But how can there be no pride of authorship if you really care about what you write?

I’d love some advice from y’all for my friend. What has worked for you when you really care about a piece of writing but know it will go across many other keyboards or be scribbled on by other pens on the way to — one hopes — being improved? How do you keep caring while inviting others to edit? How do you invite critique? How do you recieve it?

Chime in here, please.

I learned to mostly let go, as much as I’ve learned it, by being edited for 10 years as a daily reporter — and by not being edited much in my early years on a small paper and actually finding I missed it. To my astonishment, I found that good editors actually improved my stuff, and that when some of my golden words were jettisoned, the piece got better. And I’ve learned that writing a speech is really about catching another’s thoughts and voice on paper, not producing something that I think is a wonderful expression of my own brilliance. I’ve also learned there are bad editors and bad contributors — well, they’re not evildoers, most of them, but their suggestions and “improvements” generally suck — and learned which input to listen to and which to pocket veto.

What works for you? How’d you learn this?


3 thoughts on “Pick Your Brains: Pride of Authorship

  1. A few comments specific to speechwriting.

    I wrote for a lot of visible corporate execs throughout the ’80s and ’90s, often being brought in because the bosses were unhappy with what they had. Repeatedly, I was warned how they chewed up speechwriters. But I can count only two unsuccessful engagements — one with the corporate raider who didn’t believe he needed any help and one with a current CEO/Chairman whose handlers insisted they wanted something new, but every speech came out of the review process exactly as the last one, with new numbers.

    Lesson 1. Forget “pride of authorship” but maintain pride in craft. You are not the author when you’re hired to write a speech, op/ed or shareholder letter. You are a conduit for another’s voice. Applying your craft, you can make that voice clearer and more clever; you can help it say new things and draw interesting connections; you can nudge it closer to the truth. But the piece is not yours.

    Lesson 2. The speaker is the vulnerable one. Execs can hide behind press release language and brochure copy, but they are exposed giving a speech. Even if their message is institutional, the delivery is personal — and the audience is right in front of them. They are on the line, not you. They hear whether the joke gets a laugh. They know whether the words feel authentic to them, and authenticity will be the key to making the speech connect. So get over your hurt feelings already.

    Writers seldom receive the kind of direct feedback — and rejection — that performers experience. We are like studio musicians rather than bar bands, working in isolation from the audience.

    Lesson 3. Seek empathy. Think of doctor-patient or hairdresser-customer relations. There’s a technical transaction of personal services going on, but empathy allows it to become something more. Or consider actors who start with a script, but must find a way to inhabit the character by discovering what is not written down.

    Like an actor, you can use elements of your own experience, but you are creating something that is not you. Getting out of your writing self and into the speaker’s self elevates the writing.

    Lesson 4. If you succeed at the relationship, you’ll succeed in the writing. And vice versa. See lessons 1 -3. You’ll better understand your speakers and they will trust you more. Sessions will be fun instead of grueling — and you’ll be proud of your work. If you’re in a bad relationship, fix it or get out, but recognize your contribution to the situation.

    More broadly…

    I suspect many writers don’t receive the careful and instructive editing that we did, and what they have in its place is the corrosive-to-creativity input of branding and sensitivity to the financial markets.

    Witnessing how others can make something worse is not helpful for a writer. The best experience is pouring your heart into something and then seeing it made better — usually by taking out some of the “good” stuff.

  2. jl says:

    Really good stuff, Quimby. Especially agree with Lesson 2. During speech writing and editing, I try to remember two truisms.

    TRUISM #1: THEY DIDN’T HIRE A TRANSCRIPTIONIST. They paid a good sum for writing and counsel. If they had only wanted a transcriptionist, they could have paid substantially less and suffered less haughtyness. So, absolutely, I do explain the method behind my madness and advocate for my strategic point-of-view, because they specifically asked and paid for it. I would be ripping them off if I didn’t. But after giving my point of view twice (okay, sometimes three times if they can take it), I typically back off because…

    TRUISM #2: IT’S THEIR SPEECH, NOT MINE. As Quimby said so well, speeches are more personal than anything else we write. You have to be realistic enough to admit that a great speech for Person A may be a lousy speech for Person B, and vice versa. So, pride of authorship is very dangerous in this realm. Generally, I don’t know the person giving the speech very well, so I always tell my clients that it’s a near certainty that I didn’t get the speaker’s voice exactly right and that it’s their responsibility to make my speech into their speech. I tell them it’s not their right; it’s their responsibility. The last thing I want to do is for them to read my draft verbatim and sound phoney, stilted or handled, so I do myself no favor by insisting on robotics.

    More times than not, we meet at a good spot. The client benefits from the organization, time management, color, jokes, anecdotes, statistics and outside translation I bring to the table. But the final product benefits from the personal imprint the speaker puts on it.

  3. Rachel North says:

    You all give such good advice. After 20 years, I am starting to realize that there are many right answers, especially in copy. When you care about your speaker, as much as your friend obviously cares, protecting them from bad copy is where to spend your passion chits. There are probably only a couple of edits (read potential mistakes) in my career that I’d consider something more valuable than pawns on the chess board.

    And oftentimes I found myself having to deliver counsel that wasn’t happy stuff, and I didn’t know before the words came out of my mouth if they would be appreciated. (Where are your clothes, emperor?) At those times, I like to use this expression, “Of course I will do whatever you tell me to do; it is my counsel that …” That way, I hope, they hear support and advice. I hope.

    And sometimes you just have to go home, have a martini with friends and try to pretend it’s just a job. Okay, two martinis.

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