C is for constraints

Elen Lewis, editor of The Marketing Society says using constraints can inject magic and creativity into your business writing.

Constraints have a creative effect on language. Douglas R Hofstader said, ‘I suspect the welcoming of constraints is, at bottom, the deepest secret of creativity.’ And it’s true. They help you produce better writing and ensure you enjoy the process of choosing words. Constraints can come in many different forms. One French novelist Georges Perec wrote a novel ‘La Disparation’ without using a single ‘e’.

As part of a writer’s organisation, 26, I have contributed to a project called 26 Treasures. I was paired with two treasures, one from the V&A, and one from the National Library of Wales and asked to write a 62-word poem, coined a ‘sestude’. In the latest project, my poem will be exhibited next to Princess Leia at the Museum of Childhood. I get to write about Star Wars.

So what was the point of 62 words? Most importantly, it made it easier. Here was a framework to work from, a starting point. Every word counted. I started picking the language apart. How could I make every word work harder? A first draft using the phrase ‘darkness covers’ became ‘darkness cloaks’.

The Oxford English Dictionary estimates that there are 750,000 different words in the English language. Yet, the number of words that an average person uses ranges from a few thousand to tens of thousands.

Another useful constraint that helps hone choice of words is by working through the alphabet from A-Z, beginning each sentence with the next letter in the alphabet. It’s not as hard as it sounds:

All I want to say is believe. Craft those words, dare. Everyone is liberated by constraints, finally.

Your turn. Take the opening paragraph of a presentation and rewrite the sentences using this constraint. You’ll be forced to think precisely about the words you use.  See where it takes you.

Elen Lewis is the founding director of The Business Writing Academy.

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  • © 2014 Elen Lewis