Writing About Politics on the Job

I know, I know: I keep counseling against talking about politics on the job (here and here, for example), but what if your job is political writing? How do you approach the task? What follows are my pragmatic thoughts on the task of writing politically oriented content. By pragmatic I mean simply how to get your head right so you can write for any customer, regardless of their political mindset.

There are limits, of course, and you will know what yours are when that moment comes. However, some jobs will simply make political commentary unavoidable, and you might find yourself disagreeing with what you are asked to write. In that case, you have to make a choice: are political ideals more important than a paycheck? If the answer is yes, you might be better off working for an organization that advocates for a particular viewpoint rather than shift with the political winds.It’s not worth the ulcer. That said, if you don’t take political writing personally, you can make a reasonably good living.

Government writing is political writing

Let’s start with my background in this: I got a job doing technical, educational, and outreach writing for NASA back in 2006. From that point until 2012, I was a contractor creating content on behalf of an agency of the United States Government. Any time you are writing on behalf of (or to) a government, you are, by default, engaged in political writing. You could live in a republic, monarchy, socialist democracy, or dictatorship.* Regardless of the governmental arrangement, if you are articulating reasons for how public funds are spent, you are engaged in politics because you are arguing that those funds will be or would be better spent your way or more precisely your employer’s way rather than on some other project. That requires you to incorporate political considerations into the words that you use.

(* Note: you can face similar “political” issues in a regular business. For example, you might not like the company’s official response to a particular situation and have to hash it out with a colleague. As I put it somewhat undiplomatically at the time, “I’m paid to write this ####, I’m not paid to believe it.”)

Example: Your agency has been actively pursuing a particular program or project. Suddenly, an election brings about a change in government. The program you were writing prose to support has been canceled. You must now write copy justifying the change even if you believed in the program. Can you do this without grinding your mental gears? Honestly, some people can’t, and they leave the agency.

The pragmatics of government writing

If you’re a little more flexible about such matters, you have to be willing and able to perform the following mental efforts to ensure your continued employment:

  • Take the considerations of your employer and your audience seriously. This means you have to understand your customer’s stated ideals–the reasons they articulate for why they do what they do–and be able to write from that viewpoint.
  • Anticipate what the opposing arguments might be regarding the policy you are advancing and be willing/able to counter those arguments.
  • If you are writing in support of a policy change, acknowledge the change and be able to explain why the change was or should be made.
  • Expect policy changes if you live in a nation where political fortunes can change fairly regularly. For example, NASA faces political battles every four years when there is a Presidential election, every two years when there is a congressional election, and even every year, when the federal budget is discussed, argued over, and reconciled.
  • Know your audience and its “hot buttons.” If your primary audience for a piece of writing is a group of elected officials, they will want to know why a new policy is good for their constituents. If your primary audience is “the big boss” (agency administrator, cabinet member, or president/monarch/chief), they will want to know how the new policy is advancing their particular plans/agenda. If your audience is the voting public, they will want to know that their tax dollars are being spent wisely and what they might, in theory, stand to gain from a particular policy or program.

If you took a speech class or participated in a forensics team in high school or college, you understand how this mindset works. You have to be philosophically flexible enough to recognize arguments other than your own and be willing/able to give as convincing an argument for that position as you would for your own side. The goal is to form a cogent argument, not advance your own personal agenda. If you would prefer the latter, again, you might be better off working as an advocate or politician.

Interacting in a political workplace

I have one last note on this topic, because it is relevant to “surviving” as a writer in a political environment. I strongly recommend you give thought to my post on political discussions (which is quoted along with others on Dear English Major). The gist of my advice is that if you are working in a highly charged political environment, such as a government agency, it is very much to your benefit to be able to get along with individuals with points of view that differ from yours. If you have a very strong political viewpoint, you have to be able to articulate that viewpoint in a way that will not irritate or offend your employer to the point where they think that you’re too opinionated to do the work they pay you to do.

I am a philosophical writer by inclination, which by extension includes writing about politics (politics is philosophy put into practice). That is the sort of writing that interests me the most. This past week I helped an honorable friend with whose politics I disagree reorganize her writing so that she framed her arguments better. I enjoyed the challenge, and she appreciated my input.

Again, I have limits. I had a customer in my senior year of college who contracted with me to edit his book. I found his arguments (and my ability to improve upon them) sufficiently awful that I eventually backed out of the assignment. On the whole, however, I was able to write to and on behalf of government agencies with a minimum of friction. I no longer have that job, which I’m certain that says something more about me than the practice of technical communication. Yet I stand behind my “survival mechanisms” for anyone interested in a similar line of work. Much like a member of the State Department who must cope with constant changes in administration and policy, a government writer must be willing to serve their customer however they choose to articulate themselves.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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