How Understanding Politics Can Teach You to Be a Better Writer
I really do love politics. No matter how much it hurts and confounds me, no matter how many fits of anger or sadness it sends me spiraling into on a seemingly daily basis, there is something about it that will always keep me coming back for more. Perhaps it’s the pageantry of it all, the grand rituals and traditions it lives be, that fascinates me so. Or perhaps it’s the almost sports-like and competitive atmosphere it can conjure up in even the most even tempered minds, creating teams to root for and rivals to contend with. Or perhaps, and this is my leading theory, I love politics so much because it taught me how to write.
I came to this realization a few years ago, when sitting in front of a television and earnestly soaking up some cable news channel or another, I came to a startling realization. It was that so many of the things I was watching and following politics for were also the same things that kept me engaged and passionate as writer. I realized in this blinding moment that my lifelong love for all things found in our wide arena of politics had somehow instilled within me a respect and understanding for all of the things I carried over into my writing ventures, and that without my interest in politics, my ability to learn and appreciate the craft of writing would have deeply suffered. Politics taught me so much of what I carry over into that time spent at my desk plugging away at some project or another, and they are lessons all writers would do well to consider.
The Power of Characters
If we can accept the idea that politics is, to at least some meaningful degree, a competition of ideas than we must as well accept the idea that politics is just as much a competition of characters. In the game of politics, these characters take the form of elected (or those hoping to be elected) officials. Politicians hold debates to show how they can command respect and admiration better than their opponents, put themselves in commercials where they can be seen smiling, laughing, and being all around relatable to average folks, and ensure that their name and brand can carry a multifaceted appeal to those they are trying to reach.
It is in looking at how these politicians present themselves and weave about themselves a cloak of appeal and interest, that a writer can learn a thing or two. For any writer, even those operating outside the realm of fiction, should be well versed in understanding the ABC’s of character development and how exactly you can make a character come across as real and dimensional to the audience. Politicians and their teams do this practically every day. Learn how they attempt to make even the most straightforward and flat personalities into interesting household names, observe how they use catchphrases and slogans to tell people what they are all about, and watch how they will construct a series of obstacles or opponents that they must overcome, all done with goal of giving their audiences a sense of progression and unity. These are all goals any writer will be tasked with when attempting to create characters, and understanding politics will often point the writer in the right direction.
Never Underestimate Emotion
The players of politics learned a long time ago that appealing to somebody mind was only effective if you could equally appeal to somebody’s heart. People are, by and large, a bunch that can be driven to action through emotional and personal appeals, causing us to feel something so strongly that it calls us to do something about it. Our political landscape relies on this reality, and takes advantage of it on a daily basis. Be it through fear, hope, anxiety, or even pride, those playing at politics will utilize the channels that connect their goals and ideas to the hearts of voters, and will ensure that such a connection benefits their agenda. Its shockingly simple, incredibly manipulative, and astoundingly effective.
As a writer, though, we must on some level be prepared to do this ourselves. As I watch politicians give great sweeping speeches with great sweeping rhetoric to energize the crowd, I am reminded all the time that this is exactly what writers try to do all the time. Finding the words that will reach past a reader’s cynicism and touch them on a deeply emotional level, figuring how to convey your story or idea in a way that will be engaging and addictive, is arguably one of the most important and difficult jobs a writer must complete if they wish to be successful. Watching how somebody else can do this can be a wonderful learning tool, and few do it better than a skilled politician.
Respect Your Audience
Have you ever watched a political speaker get booed on stage? Ever watched a speech truly fail and fall apart in spectacular fashion in real time? It is a fascinating and often cringe-inducing thing to watch, but I implore everyone to witness it at least once in their life because it teaches a valuable lesson; always respect the audience. Often when a political speaker fails on stage is because they turned themselves or their brand away from the people who have come to support it. Going back on a campaign promise, offering softer, complimentary words to their main political opponent, or even adopting a speaking style opposite to what they have come to be known for, are all easy ways to get a devoted audience to turn on the speaker faster than you snap your fingers. Any kind of speaker has a right to fear this kind of immediate backlash from their audience, but politicians fear it with a special passion and will do their upmost to avoid it at all costs.
In many ways, a writer must take this heed as well. Because it is a reality, however fair or unfair, that any writer who is fortunate enough to have found an audience needs to consider the potential reactions of that audience as they make their decisions. A writer should never be afraid of branching out and trying new things, experimenting with new styles or ideas, but at the same time they should always be aware that audiences have a tendency to be incredibly well rooted in their preexisting notions of what they like and what they expect. They can be slow, at times, to adapt to more drastic changes, and if they are feeling like the writer is somehow betraying their trust and support they may no longer see fit to offer any. Considering this, this influence of the audience, is something every writer needs to be prepared for. Understanding politics can help with that.
Even Politics Can’t Teach You Everything
While these are all valuable lessons a writer can learn from understanding and following politics, lessons of which I have been a student of for many years, they are still no substitute for the knowledge that be gained from writing itself. The best teacher for any writer is experience, in learning firsthand how this craft operates, and the only way to gain that experience is sit yourself down and get to writing. The lessons of politics, or any other venture for that matter, will be ultimately pointless if the writer is not prepared to get to work.