Writers Don't Have To Write Books

Speechwriter, and former journalist, Brian Jenner, explains how it can take a long time for a writer to find a niche.

Until well into my thirties I was troubled by the question, how am I ever going to earn a living?

I sold stories to gossip columns, wrote a novel, worked in newspaper offices, had a job in internal communications, set up a local news website and did interviews for a Christmas-stocking book. I found what was fun, didn’t work out or didn’t pay.

What I did enjoy was being part of a public speaking in a club in London. So one day I posted a website offering my services as a speechwriter. Within a couple of weeks I got a call from someone who saw me speak at the club. He asked me to write speeches for the Chairman of a multinational company.

Mitch Murray had been advertising in Private Eye as a speechwriter for many years. He had penned big hits of the Sixties for Gerry and The Pacemakers and Georgie Fame, but song writing couldn’t be a full-time activity. He adapted his talents to writing witty orations for social occasions. I decided to run a classified ad next to Murray and ended up with a few commissions a month. Then Mitch Murray retired.

Building a career as a writer, I have learnt two key lessons. Firstly, specialise – that’s what has given me confidence.

Having written nearly 100 best man speeches, I now know what I do and why. I stop people saying things that will make them look stupid. I put flesh on the dry bones of corporate communications. I make business people sound urbane and well-read. I revive lugubrious prose with injections of active verbs and startling analogies. I secretly help Masons pretend they could have had alternative careers as stand-up comedians.

Every week I need to attract customers, describe a service to them, negotiate a price and collect the payment. Each stage in the process has pitfalls. By adopting a narrow field of expertise, it’s much easier to master those processes.

My second lesson is that it has required Tolstoyan quantities of patience and time to get to where I am now. I’ve got customers who come back to me three or four times a year. I can spot time wasters. I can cope with being frantic and idle.

Repeatedly writing similar scripts means I gather lots of material and get a keen sense of what’s required. Like the late Bob Monkhouse, I have files with hundreds of jokes, anecdotes and inspirational lines, which refresh the driest of subjects. I’ll be ready for the day that David Beckham or King Charles III requires my services.

We writers often can’t be satisfied with conventional rewards. We need to ask ourselves, what do I really need to thrive? I love the buzz of being a quasi-therapist to fathers of the bride, investigating their feelings about their daughters. I relish the challenge of composing an introduction to a conference on a subject I know nothing about and I enjoy the compliments and gratitude from clients.

Yes, I’d like to be an author, but I would struggle with the loneliness of focusing on just one manuscript for many months. Contact and interaction keep me sane. I keep a diary about my funny experiences, which might make a good book, but there is no hurry.

I enjoy the freedom to market myself. I studied French at university. I went on a visit to the Cherbourg Chamber of Commerce. The man gave us a poor English presentation full of PowerPoint spelling mistakes. I set up a website in French, selling my services to visiting businessmen. There are all sorts of ways to slightly increase the odds of always being busy.

How do you become a speechwriter? Put an ad in Private Eye and wait for a response. It’s really as simple as that. The problems begin when you have to compose a bar mitzvah speech without any knowledge of Judaism. My early life gave me the contacts and experience to solve such problems.

Brian Jenner writes a blog on the subject of speechwriting, http://www.thespeechwriter.co.uk