Seven Lessons from Fiction

You can read my mind. It’s true. Watch:

Imagine a desk, cluttered, lit by the hazy glow of a computer monitor and an overhead fluorescent fixture. A slate gray phone barely peeks out from beneath a cascade of file folders and papers. On top of the precarious stack sits a bulky white binder adorned only with a simple yellow sticky note on which the number 8 is scrawled in bold, blue permanent ink.

Can you see the scene? There will naturally be variations. Where my folders might be manila, yours might be olive or a mixture of several colors. The desk could be a sleek, modern, functional design or a hulking, wooden, antique monstrosity. Key components though – are no doubt present. Though we are separated by both space and time, I have successfully transmitted pictures from my head to yours without us ever having even met.

I confess – I borrowed that exercise from Stephen King, modifying a similar paragraph in his book On Writing: A memoir of the Craft (Scribner, 2000). The point King was illustrating is that writing carries awesome power and that you should approach every blank page with a sense of genuine purpose. You should know what you are trying to accomplish each time you sit down to write.

King was talking about fiction, but the same adage is true of all writing, of all communication. Knowing your purpose before you begin to write is essential to conveying that purpose in your message, regardless of medium, regardless of length, regardless of audience.

November is National Novel Writing Month. While we tend to think of business writing and creative writing – especially popular or genre fiction writing – as separate mediums, there are striking similarities between the two. In honor of NaNoWriMo, here are some words of wisdom from famous popular novelists and how to apply those tips to your business writing.

  1. Tell the readers a story! Because without a story, you are merely using words to prove you can string them together in logical sentences.
    – Anne McCaffrey

We tell stories in business all the time, though we often don’t realize it. Whether we’re communicating with customers or trying to persuade stakeholders to support a project, we’re doing it with stories – and if we’re not, we should be, because research has shown that stories are far more persuasive than facts.1

  1. Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
    ― Anton Chekhov

Be descriptive. Sensory impressions are vivid, compelling and, above all, memorable. Engage as many senses as you can to help your readers engage with your subject matter, remember and be moved by what you had to say.2

  1. The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
    –Mark Twain

Choose your words carefully. Don’t use a word simply because it was the first one that came to mind. However, also make sure that the words you choose are appropriate in the context in which you’ve used them – don’t use a word just because it sounds good. In addition, don’t add words simply for the sake of doing so. Conciseness should never be sacrificed for wordiness.3

  1. A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
    –George Orwell

In addition to good advice covered elsewhere in this list, Orwell mentions idioms and clichés. Some well-known phrases are helpful, while others are just tired and used so often and in so many ways they become meaningless.4 You have to evaluate such language carefully before you include it your writing.

  1. Let grammar, punctuation and spelling into your life! Even the most energetic and wonderful mess has to be turned into sentences.
    ― Terry Pratchett

Make sure you understand the rules and how to follow them. Some punctuation marks are relatively straight-forward, while others have scads of exceptions attached to them, making them much more difficult to learn to use properly.5 The effort pays off, though, as your professional image and even hiring or promotions are often based on people’s perceptions of your writing6 – and that might even be holding your whole company back.7

  1. I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
    ― Maya Angelou

Emotions and business are natural partners because in business, you need to connect with people quickly and emotions are places of universal experience.8 You can hit quickly and deeply with very little effort – think about that adorable puppy and those horses in that adult beverage commercial.

  1. Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.

— Jane Yolen

That’s right. Practice. You don’t get better if you don’t work at it. Always be writing. But in addition, always be reading. Read everything (newsletters, articles, blogs, fiction – whatever), because everything you read exposes you to something new, good or bad and, like a musician listening to music, tunes your ear to words and phrases.9

Of course, those great writers make it sound like magic – the same kind of verbal legerdemain that King and I used to demonstrate literary telepathy. It’s not that easy. It takes perseverance and effort. It takes commitment. It takes a willingness to stare down that blank piece of paper glaring at you daily. How do you do that? I’ll let one more author tell you:

This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.
― Neil Gaiman