The Craft of Creative Writing
January 3, 2018
The Craft of Creative Writing
Towards the end of each year, our team draws names for our Secret Santa gift exchange. For 2017, my super awesome Secret Santa, Michelle, gave me a book by Dani Shapiro, titled, “Still Writing – The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life.” This book particularly resonated with me as the art of storytelling is the cornerstone of the communications industry. There were several pieces of advice based on Dani’s experiences that stood out to me as a writer and PR professional.
Don’t Dread the Blank Page
One of the biggest battles writers often face is ‘where to start.’ Staring at your computer or a blank piece of paper can easily arouse feelings of frustration and anxiety. That feeling of being “stuck” before even beginning. In her book, Dani compares the beginning of the writing process to a jigsaw puzzle. She advises writers to “Build a corner. Every book, story, and essay begins with a single word. Then a sentence. Then a paragraph. Straining to know the whole story before you set out is a bit like imagining great-grandchildren on a first date.”
If I’m writing a press release, I like to start with the headline, subhead and first sentence of the intro paragraph. From there, I draft a customer or executive quote that drives home the main theme of the news. This content serves as an overarching or “umbrella” theme for the release and sets the stage for the rest of the content. From there, I draft the content in the order I want to see it appear in the release – a positioning paragraph, product or use case details, and on and on.
Dani also describes this as framing or finding an edge: “The frame offers parameters through which you can see your story. Without knowing what these parameters are, these edges, you will be in danger of throwing everything in there: the kitchen sink approach.”
Control, that pesky need to know exactly what we’re doing and manage it every step of the way. While some might view control as a positive thing as it can drive efficiency, it can have the opposite effect on creativity. Dani states, “There are as many intricacies to the process as there are writers struggling to find their way. It’s a matter of discovering what works for you, and eliminating the shoulds.”
I loved this chapter as it reminded me that loosening the reins on what should be (aka the way it’s always been done) can lead to new levels of creativity. One of our teams put this into practice brilliantly several years back. Instead of issuing a standard press release for a round of funding, our team decided to issue the news in a series of memes. Not only did we secure coverage of the news, but our client was recognized for its unconventional way of sharing a great milestone for the company.
Break the Rules
Break the rules. Rock the boat. Color outside the lines. You know the sayings. In the scenario above, our team took a risk and changed the way funding news was traditionally communicated. Dani’s philosophy resonated with me as taking risks is a core value of our agency. “Why not now? Why not you? What’s the worst thing that can happen?” Your client might not like an idea, but that’s ok. You’ve pushed their boundaries, you’ve made them think in a new direction. And who knows, perhaps it will lead to something else down the road.
Don’t Fear Feedback
When you’re deep into a writing project, or scrambling to meet a last-minute deadline, it’s easy to find yourself working in a silo. While the project is moving forward, writers need to remember that outside input is critical to clarifying ideas, determining structural issues and ultimately delivering an engaging story. The key is to find an outside reader that you trust with your writing. Dani writes, “If you find one or two genuinely helpful readers – ones who are able to speak with you about your work in a way that helps you – consider yourself lucky.”
Many of the PR pros I have worked with over the years would characterize themselves as perfectionists – hey, it’s what makes us good at our jobs, right?!? That said, it can be hard not to take feedback personally. Find those people that you consider your allies, and then open yourself up to their feedback, knowing you are both invested in a positive outcome.
Technology. Love it or hate it, we all rely on it in our personal and professional lives. For writers, it enables us to draft and share our work, however, it can also get in the way of its creation. Dani highlights this dichotomy, saying, “One of the most difficult practical challenges facing writers in the age of connectivity is the fact that the very instrument on which most of us write is also a portal to the outside world. I once heard Ron Carlson say that composing on a computer was like writing in an amusement park.”
As I sit here and write this blog post, I’m also using iMessage to chat with my friend about her afternoon, checking email and listening to Spotify. My very own amusement park. While taking breaks can free the mind, I find it best to shut down email, iMessage, Skype, social media, etc. when diving into a writing project (I should heed my own advice more often). I also find it easiest to write at home, without the distraction of daily office activities.
While I could write many more pages on the sage advice shared in “Still Writing,” I will leave you with one last line from the book:
“When I think of the wisest people I know, they share one defining trait: curiosity.”
When asked in interviews about the characteristics of people that tend to succeed in the communications field, I always jump right to curiosity. People that are naturally curious are not afraid to explore the road less traveled. They aren’t afraid to ask questions and see where the knowledge that comes from that inquiry leads. The old saying says “curiosity killed the cat,” but as writers and communicators I would argue just the opposite. As a writer, curiosity can lead us to places we couldn’t even fathom at the beginning of a writing project.