Martin Luther King Jr.’s Lesson for Writers

Monday, January 20, 2020
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”

Most of us know these words. They are from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. But did you know that these lines almost weren’t part of the speech?

King only had 5 minutes to speak and he wanted to create a piece as strong as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The night before he was to give the speech, King worked with two speech writers. One of them told King to avoid saying “I have a dream,” because he thought the phrase had been overused to the point of becoming a cliché. King complied.

On August 28, 1963, King was about half way through the prepared speech when singer Mahalia Jackson called out to him. “Tell ’em about the ‘Dream,’ Martin, tell ’em about the ‘Dream’!”

King could have pushed forward and followed his original plan. Instead, he put aside his notes and spoke from the heart. He gave the speech that has gone down in history.

As writers, we can learn something from King.

You don’t have to do it alone. When King worked to create a high-impact speech, he brought in speech writers. They worked as a team. Writers often feel like they are working all alone. We sit at our desks and write and rewrite. We need to make an effort to connect with our fellow writers. We can do that here at Women on Writing or in critique groups or author events.

Weigh the feedback you receive. King listened to those around him but that meant he had to decide how to respond to contradictory feedback. Take the Dream out of the speech or play it up big? At some point, every writer gets contradictory feedback. A big part of learning how to rewrite is learning how to deal with incompatible comments. When this happens, ask yourself what is my vision for this piece?

Give your audience something to hang onto. King spoke from the heart with hope for the future. What can your reader take away from your writing? Perhaps it is a new insight or a sense of purpose. Maybe it is a new skill or, like King, a sense of hope.

It you can give your reader something of value, they will remember your writing. When they see your name again, it will bring them back for more.

To find out more about Sue Bradford Edwards' writing, visit her blog, One Writer's Journey.  Sue is also the instructor for  Research: Prepping to Write Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults. The next session begins  March 2nd, 2020. 


Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--All your points are spot-on, especially weighing feedback. There have been rare occasions when I've been in a writing response group, and everybody had the same opinion except for one--and that one person had such a weird opinion, I had to completely ignore it... after I reexamined my piece, to see if there was any validity.

Here is an example from a friend's piece. We were responding to her piece about growing up in Kentucky, in coal mine country. My friend had contracted polio--this was before the vaccine had been developed--and she had described her family home in loving detail. At the heart of her home was an old fashioned black stove. The stove heated her family's home, and the family had a nickname for it: Black Beauty.

Even though the piece included details about stoking Black Beauty and gathering around Black Beauty and oiling the outside of Black Beauty, one of the writers thought Black Beauty was a horse.

I had to restrain myself from snorting out of hilarious disbelief. Later, I reassured my friend: she had done nothing to mislead anyone.

Dr. King was a gifted speaker, a talented writer and a courageous leader. I look forward to seeing you connect some of your book subjects (like Tupac) to writing--at least I hope that happens. ;)

Angela Mackintosh said...

What a powerful post, Sue! I didn't know that about King's speech. The "I have a dream" mantra is so strong, and even if it were a cliche, he made it his own.

When providing feedback on another's work, I try to put myself in their shoes and consider the writer's vision for the piece and make sure I understand what they're trying to do.

I agree with Sioux! I hope you mine from Tupac and Biggie's lives for writing craft examples. :)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

You are a woman of great self-restraint.

Sioux and Angela,
Well, Tupac was a poet. And studied Shakespeare.


Cathy C. Hall said...

Excellent points, Sue. And I LOVE a good story with my writing advice. Helps me remember the advice!

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I agree. A good story definitely helps.

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