On Writing: President Obama and MLK


Throughout his tenure, President Obama has shown that another role should be added to his general job description, that of “Reader in Chief.”

In an interview published today with The New York Times’ chief book critic Michiko Kakutani, President Obama discusses his reading habits.  But he also has this intriguing response about his speechwriting process:

How has the speechwriting and being at the center of history and dealing with crises affected you as a writer?

I’m not sure yet. I’ll have to see when I start writing the next book. Some of the craft of writing a good speech is identical to any other good writing: Is that word necessary? Is it the right word? Is there a rhythm to it that feels good? How does it sound aloud?

I actually think that one of the useful things about speechwriting is reminding yourself that the original words are spoken, and that there is a sound, a feel to words that, even if you’re reading silently, transmits itself.

So in that sense, I think there will be some consistency.

But this is part of why it was important to pick up the occasional novel during the presidency, because most of my reading every day was briefing books and memos and proposals. And so working that very analytical side of the brain all the time sometimes meant you lost track of not just the poetry of fiction, but also the depth of fiction.

Fiction was useful as a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day and was a way of seeing and hearing the voices, the multitudes of this country.

While not every writer reaches an audience as significant as that of our president, Obama’s questions still apply to a multitude of writing assignments. So, the next time you’re editing a project, it wouldn’t hurt to ask yourself Obama’s list of questions:

  1. Is that word necessary?
  2. Is it the right word?
  3. Is there a rhythm to it that feels good?
  4. How does it sound aloud?

Of course, while President Obama has had some memorable speeches over the years including his 2004 DNC speech which first attracted the nation’s attention, there are plenty of other famous American speeches to inspire you. Especially pertinent to today’s national holiday, the Top 100 speeches (as selected by the website American Rhetoric) ranks Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech as #1 (video below):

Happy Writing and Happy MLK Day!

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