Name: Ellie Schaack, 25
What she does
Ellie Schaack remembers the first time she heard words that she had written tumble out of the mouth of a well-known politician. She recalls seeing passages she had crafted appear in the newspaper she reads each day — and in a book for sale at the bookstore. She remembers the first time her words went viral.
Schaack is a District-based director at West Wing Writers, a firm she’s worked at since 2015 that offers speechwriting services and communications strategy. “We work with leaders of a lot of different types of organizations to tell their story in a way that helps them create whatever kind of change they want to make,” she says. “Whether that’s introducing a new idea or product, or passing legislation or changing the conversation about whatever issue they’re working on.” Sometimes, she adds, the most effective way to do that is via a speech, but she’s also helped clients write books and tweets — basically, whatever kind of written product they need.
Schaack can’t divulge her specific clients due to confidentiality agreements, but she’s written for people who run nonprofits, tech companies and media organizations, as well as political candidates and government officials. “So, anyone who’s trying to lead a big conversation,” she says.
When Schaack starts working on a new project — say, a 15-minute keynote a CEO will deliver at a conference, an award acceptance speech, an inauguration address or an hour-long lecture — she first has an in-depth conversation with the client to determine his or her vision. Then comes the research stage. She reads constantly and relies on the firm’s interns, who create 100-page “welcome to this issue” packets that serve as useful primers.
Next is the draft stage: Each speech goes through numerous iterations until everyone involved feels it’s the best it can possibly be. Sometimes, speechwriters have a month’s lead time on a given assignment; other projects — the “stressful ones,” Schaack says — come in with only a couple days’ notice. She spent much of the past year working on long-term book projects — nonfiction works “about these big global issues, and one person’s specific lens on that issue.”
Schaack feeds off the variety that defines speechwriting. “It’s basically your whole job to figure out what make something interesting,” she says. “Especially if you work for a firm that does this for a lot of different people, you just keep dipping your toes into all these weird new things and learning only enough about them that you stop where it stops being interesting. What’s happening in the TV industry? How scared should we be about a global pandemic? And then you move on.”
How she got the job
In 2013, while studying political science and English at Duke University, Schaack interned with then-Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado. While there, she wrote a speech for him on the immigration reform bill, which passed the Senate two days later. After that, she was sold on speechwriting, so she spent the summer before she graduated interning with West Wing Writers.
But she particularly credits her current position to her extracurricular activities. She wrote a weekly op-ed for Duke’s student newspaper, for example, and describes doing so as boot camp for persuasive writing.
“You master the art of capturing people’s attention, and of striking a tone that’s casual and relatable but also convincing,” she says.
In addition to other activities, like debate competitions, she’s a singer — a surprisingly relevant skill. “Sometimes I look at the speeches I love and I’m like, the reason I love that is the rhythm and melody — and how it builds and builds to a climax. Developing a real ear for it is really useful for speechwriting.”
Who would want this job
You have to be a generalist, Schaack says, and crave learning about a new topic almost every day. And you absolutely have to love writing. “I could just wax poetic about the idea of words forever,” she says. “They take imaginary things and turn them into real, tangible change in the world. If you stop and think about it, it’s amazing.”
Also: Make sure you’re OK with staring at a computer for a good part of the day (and, more specifically, the blinking cursor looming on an empty Word document that you really need to fill).
Schaack stresses, too, that you’ll need to be able to deal with not having your name attached to your work. Speechwriters are always writing for someone else, “and even when it’s in their voice, I like to say, if your fingers typed it on a keyboard, it feels like part of you.” Adjusting language to fit someone else’s priorities and preferences can be difficult, especially when it doesn’t quite mesh with your vision.
How you can get the job
Study whatever you want in college: “We write about every topic under the sun, and breadth of knowledge is super useful,” Schaack says.
Working for a political candidate can be a good way to break into the field, and interning at a firm like West Wing Writers is smart. But most important is to write — all the time. Schaack recommends crafting op-eds, even if you’re the only reader. Submit the really good ones to a publication you like, and perhaps you’ll gain a solid clip.
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