When I was in high school I was in this competitive writing class that we had to audition to get into, called Aegis. We wrote one painstakingly elaborate essay, oh, every month – like about Chaucer. Sometimes we wrote creative stories. And sometimes we’d win national awards from judges like Garrison Keillor. Of course we had this amazing professor that inspired greatness, Dr. Ballard, and she was tough, too. It was all very Dead Poets Society. Except in suburbia not some picturesque New England prep school. And, no one died.
But man, there were nights before a paper was due that I thought I would die. I just hated getting started. I’d procrastinate, staying up watching TV dramas with my mom on the couch. Then I’d eventually slide off the couch and moan “gaaaahhhh wwwwhhhyyyy” as I would drag myself across the carpet over to the living room computer desk. Did I mentioned no one actually died? Anyhow, once my mom went to bed, these dramatics ended since I had no audience.
I never had any problem with my other extra efforts. Like band. Just practice your flute for fifteen minutes and you’ll probably get second, if not first chair, since most people don’t practice. Art? Okay, I really loved art. I would draw and draw and draw as a kid so it wasn’t like practicing, it was like playing. No dramatics required.
But writing? That was hard. Is hard. The blank page. The false starts. The doubling back. The deleting. The “oohh gaahhh!” I feel myself slowing as I type right now just thinking about it. And here’s the thing, the less you do it, the more rusty you get. Like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, just frozen there with his axe in mid air.
But once Dorothy oils him up (hmmm, nope, I’m not deleting that one) that Tin Man really gets his axe swinging. He declares he has no heart, but the irony of The Wizard of Oz is that all the characters have a surplus of what they’re each searching for, already inside them. See, that smarty-pants class of mine paid off after all – unless that’s not actually ironic. No, wait, yes. I’m pretty sure that’s ironic.
So my point is, you have a surplus of something inside you, too. And whatever your profession, and as painful as it might be, if you don’t find some way to communicate it (and communicate it well) you’ll never really hit the stride of all you can do.
Remember how I said art was so easy for me? Well, guess what my college major was? Art. My dad was soooo excited. And I can say with certainty that’s sarcasm right there. And my first job? No, not selling pencils out of a cup on the street corner, like dad feared. I was hired as an art director. Basically I was just banking on what I was naturally good at. Case in point, I got dropped from the college marching band the second year. Apparently those flute players practice more than fifteen minutes.
Anyway, what happened for me about a few years into being paid to design, was I found that if I wrote, too – be it my own headline or a logical creative rationale to send along with the piece – all my visual solutions became so much more complete, my concepts made way more sense and my work was more enthusiastically approved by my creative director, my account executive and eventually the clients. It clicked for me. Eventually.
Is the pen mightier than the paintbrush? Wielding one like you know what you’re doing will do make you exponentially more effective in getting across your ideas (and getting them approved.)
Author Dan Roam is all about “Vivid Thinking” – that the verbal or written should always be paired with visuals, even though it’s a way of creating and sharing ideas that isn’t always comfortable for people that don’t think they can draw (we made a video about it here).
So I asked Dan (okay, we’re not on a casual first-name basis, but we’ve corresponded ya’ll) what he thought about encouraging creative professionals, like designers, who do rely on the visual and are comfortable with pictures – to write more. Here’s his response (sans drawing) but I know he could just as effectively doodle this idea and it would really rock your world:
“By hot-wiring our years of verbal training and grammar, we can make any verbal idea clear through adding the visual. And, of course, for those creatives among us, the opposite is even more true!
‘Creatives’ do ourselves a grave disservice when it comes time to ‘sell’ our big idea: we don't provide the words. The stereotype is that hard-core business people think of we who draw as slightly-wacky softies with our heads in the clouds. Sadly, they are partly right – and it’s our own fault.
If we want to sell our ideas, we're going to have to meet each other half-way.”
Roam (Dan to his friends, and to people like me who are pesky enough to email him for a comment) recommends using Vivid Grammar to link the right pictures to the words, which he explains in his most recent bestseller, Blah Blah Blah: What To Do When Words Don’t Work.
“Although the emphasis on my book is converting words to pictures, the opposite is also true:
1) ‘Creatives’ draw out or map out our idea.
2) We end up with a multi-layered pictures.
3) We then look to the "Vivid Grammar Graph" to see what verbal parts
of speech we need to convert the underlying essence of those images
into verbal phrases.
4) We add captions to our image (either literally on the page or keep
them in mind for when we talk) -- and as we unroll out image, we
recite those captions.
5) As we present, we watch as the business-folk understand us -- not
because we threw our drawing away, but because they now get to HEAR
what we are thinking as they also SEE it.
6) Presto: Instant Vivid Idea!”
Was it “presto!” for me? Well, it wasn’t easy at first. I had to steel myself up for it. I had to remind myself that I was a writer. That no client presentation would ever be as tough as turning in a paper to Dr. Ballard, and that deciphering a complicated brief would never be as brain-numbing as reading Chaucer in actual Middle English. I had just gotten rusty. “Oil caaann! Oil caaann!”
So if this idea of integrating writing into your skills tool belt (even if you’re not a creative professional) makes you grimace – relax Tin Man, or your face will stick like that. There are different levels of writing confidence, discomfort and then just plain fear.
Here are some ideas to help you get (I’m not going to say oiled-up) just de-rusted:
1. You Are a Writer. Do you write creative copy, press releases, speeches, presentations, grant applications, the company blog? Well, thanks for playing, but you already write. In this choose-your-own-adventure, I would direct you to our Draw More In Meetings article so you can rest your verbal talent (and crutch) for just a second, start doodling more, and getting other people on your idea page.
2. You Hate Writing. Okay, well, read on. If you’ve made it this far, there’s something about my point that intrigues you. I challenge you to consider just one of the ways below to integrate writing into your profession. I promise, it will make you smarter, and the effort won’t go unappreciated. Think of it as 15 minutes of band practice. Hardly anyone else is doing it, so you’re gonna look good if you just put in a little extra.
3. You’re a Recreational Writer. Do you write lovely letters to your friends and family? Do you pride yourself on witty Tweets and Facebook posts that strike a perfect balance of humor and friendliness. Do you craft your work emails carefully? Do you write some amazingly articulate memos? Do you have a personal blog, or often think about starting a blog about cooking, fashion, your pets, your comic book collection, your kids?
This is how my branding partner, Kathleen, started writing, by the way. Her life and style blog has helped her infuse writing into her working life. She is first and foremost an amazing art director and designer, but she uses writing to help support her work. That means every time she presents visual work she also writes by:
- backing it up with strategy and rationale copy points
- going beyond just presenting a desing by “making it real’ and describing and showing examples of how that design solution can be applied going forward
And while Kathleen would not ever introduce herself as a writer she writes content in her own style every day by:
- writing her own copy for her designs, when it makes sense
- writing presentations for public speaking,
- and writing blog posts for our business website
All because her personal blog has de-rustified her writing skills.
4. You’re a Hidden Writer. Did you write in school but quit in the real world? Were you in debate or drama? Often times readers are just writers who haven’t had the chance or it just hasn’t occurred to them to pick up the pen themselves. Did you read all the Little House on The Prairie books in third grade? Did you read every Stephen King novel before you graduated high school? Did you know every Quentin Tarantino monologue by memory in college? If this seems familiar, you are a writer at heart.
This was me. And still is in some ways. I still don’t think of myself as a writer in the traditional sense, but as a storyteller. Mostly because I can’t break the bad habits of using too many ellipses, parentheses and made up hyphenated words, and not being diligent enough about proofreading. But I have learned to embrace my style by:
- turning anything I write into a story (going for either tears, laughs or goosebumps)
- weaving logic into every creative solution (for the people who didn’t get goosebumpy)
- using writing to help round out the “back-end” of any visual (it’s like added-value)
- writing to continue to learn and position myself as an expert
- writing to define my personal brand (which surprise, surprise, is “a storyteller”)
If you glean just one takeaway as a hidden creative writer, it’s to have courage. Say “ohh gaahhh,” for about five minutes, then drag yourself across the carpet, pull yourself up to the computer, suck it up and just write. And swing that axe just a little bit every day.
By Tara Street
Notetaking obsessed. Storyteller of her sideshow family.
And the "left braid" of Braid Creative & Consulting.