The art of snackable storytelling
Any writer worth their salt reads a hundred times more than they ever produce themselves. They read great literature, but also the trashiest tabloids; they’re reading the back of cereal packets, the signs on the Underground and – with caution – the emails of the guy next to them in the carriage. They’re sucking in all the words they can. They know that every one of those words and all their combinations will be useful, one day.
Keep a notebook with you at all times, they used to say. Nowadays, that’s more likely to be a smartphone with the Evernote app, or similar. If something sounds good, right or impressive, then note it down or take a quick snap and mull over your collection on a weekly basis. What makes it good? Could you use that technique?
A writer writes. The more they write, and the more-often they write, the better and easier it becomes. Stick at it, because it turns out that practice is pretty-much all you can do to get better at the craft.
There’s a great quotation from Kingsley Amis on this: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair.”
Write every day. Write something different, differently, every day. Challenge yourself to always find a fresh way to do the job: if something you’re writing ever bores you, it’s certainly not good enough for anyone else to read. If you don’t have to write for work every day, write a journal, keep a blog, keep a Twitter account – anything that keeps you in the habit of writing.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking what made another person’s piece of writing good, and then using that technique for your own ends. Doing this and skewing it with a little of your own originality is basically the history of Arts and Letters across human civilisation.
A great exercise for story ideas is looking at the covers from publications like Rolling Stone or Cosmopolitan, and applying the cover-lines to your own client. How ACME Co. rewrote the book for New York funk. OK, that one may need some work – but you get the idea.
Know your audience, the customers. What words do they use to describe their problems, needs and aspirations? Not so long ago, it was almost impossible to gain a broad view of what customers in B2B thought about these matters. Now there are LinkedIn forums and industry message boards galore. If you can learn to see the world the way they do, adopt their vernacular, understand what makes them happy and sad, then the better-equipped you are to talk to them.
What’s the very last thing your client or employer would expect you to come up with? Let’s try that.
Well, not exactly that, because you might get fired if you go that far. But, say the narrative so far has been, ‘which vendor has the most sophisticated product?’. Rather than continuing down that line, maybe there’s on opportunity to change track and tell a different story: actually, we’re the most intuitive, best integrated, or simply more fun to use?
Brevity is absolutely the soul of wit.
In particular, cut out any writing that exists for the sake of how witty/elegant/clever it sounds. Samuel Johnson put this well: “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”
Steven King has a good version, too: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
While this is fine advice, and will help eliminate the worst excesses of the aspiring wordsmith, the art, of course, lies in knowing where to stop. And keeping a record of all those cut-down darlings, in case you need to patch them back together again.
In the fast-paced world of modern media, we’re in danger of losing this important possibility.
Whenever you can, look back at what you’ve written the next morning – before you submit it to your client or employer. A fresh pair of eyes will reveal a surprising number of inadequacies.
When the luxury of eight hours’ kip isn’t available, print out your copy and read it aloud. Better, grab an unsuspecting colleague and read it aloud to them.
About 5.30am, lying in bed, still half-dreaming is one of my most productive times for creative thought. I’m lucid enough to half-focus on a problem, but relaxed enough to feel my way round it and let in new ideas. Often, I’ll get out of bed a little later with the whole piece ready to go in my head.
Some people find these moments in the shower, walking the dog or on their morning bike ride. Agatha Christie said her best time for planning a new novel was while washing the dishes. Whenever your best time is for free-wheeling, creative thinking, exploit it as often as possible – even if your dog is exhausted and the plates are already spotless.
Writers are often solitary creatures by disposition, as well as by trade. A lot of us prefer silence, solitude, and a guttering candle in our attic to do our best work.
This might be partially true: but only some of the time. It’s not a useful perspective when you’re stuck, or are compelled to sit in an office all day, anyway.
Other people can be remarkably useful when you need fresh ideas and new words. Anyone you can persuade to discuss the topic with you could be a massive help: a team member; someone on another team; a customer; your partner or parent or a child.
Part of this is because other people have different world views, vocabularies and experiences. They can give you the words or perspective you’re lacking. Partly your own efforts to vocalise your writing problem for another person can unlock the ideas on their own. And sometimes, it’s a bit of both.