Sunday, December 16, 2012

"Words must mean something."

I think a lot about this quote from President Obama when I'm drafting and clearing in the office.  You can't imagine how much time we spend parsing and sweating over and scrutinizing and second guessing our words in this line of work.  It's almost the same amount of time we spend checking with one another -- what's our position on this topic?  What are we saying?  Contrary to popular belief, those two things really do coincide.  It makes it important to get the words right.

The meaning and power of words have taken on an even greater significance for me in the past few weeks as things have gotten more fluid in Egypt.  One of the biggest challenges of being on this desk is the lack of "off the shelf" language.  A lot of places, our positions haven't changed in years -- you can recycle the same words over and over.  When an issue -- a country! -- is in transition, that luxury is lost.  A paragraph you wrote just yesterday can be rendered outdated in an instant -- then again the next day, and then again the next.  So you rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.  Sometimes, every so often, typing away under the florescent lights of the office, next to my scraggly Pothos plant and my government-issue stapler, I'll have the eery realization that I'm actually creating the seeds of an official State position.  It's a terrifying, almost paralyzing thought.  It makes me glad of the clearance process, despite all its unwieldy exasperating bureaucratic machinations.  Policy is not the offspring of any one person.

Words in these instances can also become a stalling tactic.  Ask for a decision on something thorny, and immediately you'll be told "write up a summary of the issue."  If we just have more detail, if things are just clearer, maybe, maybe....  maybe then what to do would be clear, too.  And sometimes it is.  I have a sincere sympathy for what drives these requests,  but for me they are the most time-consuming tasks I receive since my portfolio topics cross so many offices and agencies.  Information invariably conflicts, stories have gaps, dates or costs or timelines aren't certain.  I find myself reverting back to visa interview rules:  will the answer to whatever question I want to ask bring me [or in this case, my higher ups] closer to making a decision?  If not, you have to move on and hope it doesn't come up during the briefing.  "I'm not sure, but I'll find out" are the seven words with the heaviest meaning I know.  I use them over and over now, scrawling out notecard lists of all the words we need before we can take action.

3 comments:

Geraldine Kiser said...

I don't know any other person who so carefully and precisely chooses words to convey just the right meaning. You are a master at this! If your colleagues are half as good at it then I know that I can rest easy. I am so proud of what you do!

Katie said...

They are much better than I am, so we're in good hands.

Sharon said...

I agree with your mom. You are a phenomenal writer and perfectly positioned.