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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Political Writing’
Question of the Day
POLITICAL WRITING: A GUIDE TO THE ESSENTIALS
By Adam Garfinkle
M.E. Sharpe, $29.95 (paperback), 186 pages
Persuasion is a useful skill in a democracy - indispensable if you are to win the battle of ideas. Adam Garfinkle wants to be your coach. His game plan is in “Political Writing: A Guide to the Essentials.”
Mr. Garfinkle, editor of the American Interest magazine, teaches and writes on politics and international relations and was chief speechwriter to two U.S. secretaries of state, Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice. He is also my friend - a connection any ethical book reviewer must disclose. It says so on Page 95 of “Political Writing,” which explains and advises on nearly every written form imaginable: essays, op-eds, book reviews, blog posts, press releases, commission reports, speeches, eulogies, office memos and more.
This “how to” does not even neglect the dinner toast. It lays out five steps to follow, including the one in which you make eye contact with the guest of honor, “take a sip and sit down. Let people get to their booze, broth, and beefsteak.”
Mr. Garfinkle is direct, all right. He gets after inexperienced writers for their many delinquencies. Not that they should feel singled out. He also corrects the literary critic Stanley Fish, grand pooh-bah of textual sophistication. As was true of that gruff but fair English teacher you had years ago, no one escapes his steely gaze.
Also like that good-as-gold teacher from your past, he is not being Mr. Fussy merely to lord it over you. He is trying to make you more effective in the “dark art” of using words to persuade. Yes, there is an element of manipulation here. After all, swaying the uncommitted to your cause is the goal of most writing, whether a polemical essay or a letter to your parents asking for money.
Before rhetoric come logic and grammar, as Mr. Garfinkle reminds us. He instructs in all three of these basics, covering such complex aspects as determining scale (which insights to put in and which to leave out of a piece of writing), revision and properly balancing the abstract and the concrete. All is directed toward making that precision tool - the English language - into “the stiletto” you need to go after “your prey.”
For it takes wiliness and subtlety to move others to your way of thinking. Be conscious of every word choice, he counsels. Do not throw around terms like “genocide” (if you want the public to share your indignation at violence that has riveted your attention but not theirs) or “the right-wingers” (if you are, say, trying to sell Washington Times readers on redistributionism). Carelessness like that comes from writers who assume everyone is in their camp already or who don’t care how they appear to those not in their camp.
Not caring - in short, not working hard at the enterprise of writing - is for Mr. Garfinkle the cardinal sin. Following close behind is not nourishing your mind and heart by reading widely. The ideas in this book were gleaned from the author’s own peripatetic explorations; he has learned from Aristotle, anthropologists, Shakespeare, the lyrics of folk songs and also a gossipy book about movie stars called “Hollywood’s Hellfire Club.”
Ethics do, by the way, enter into the practice of this “dark art.” The author frowns on ad hominem argument. Impugning the motives of those on the other side of a debate is out of bounds not only because it isn’t right but because “motives are irrelevant to the soundness of an argument.” You will win the day on the merits and only on the merits.
Study this book well, and you will know the difference between “country,” “nation” and “nation-state” and also what a review essay is, how you submit one to a journal and what to expect from the editing process if your submission is accepted. There is as much encouragement here as censure. At its core, this little book has a big, even a noble, purpose: making intellectuals from scratch.
Lauren Weiner was a speechwriter for U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates.
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