F is for fiction

Borrow some tricks of the trade from novelists, says Elen Lewis, a dose of imagination and empathy will help your business writing fly.

Now the thing about fiction is that people choose to read it. So what can businesses learn from the art of novels to make their writing more engaging? All writers need to have empathy for their readers and they need to have imagination. And it matters just as much with business writing. For the trick to becoming a better writer at work is to become a better writer. That’s all.

Here are four lessons to improve your writing from emails to reports and presentations.

1/ Read fiction

Last year, the Harvard Business Review reported that business leaders need to read more fiction to develop empathy. As Henry James said, ‘a novel is a direct impression of life.’ Academic researchers have gathered data to show that reading fiction activates pathways in the brain that improve our understanding of human emotion.

2/ Solve a problem by writing it down.

I like what novelist EM Forster said, ‘How do I know what I think till I see what I say.’ Writer’s block is a pain. It happens to us all. Whether I’m scaling the mountain of a 100,000 word novel or writing a difficult email, automatic writing helps. Before you start writing a thing, take a pen and paper and write without stopping for five minutes using a prompt. ‘If I ruled the world…’ or ‘I’ve never told anybody this before but…’

3/ Give your characters a voice

As a marketer you may already be thinking like a novelist. Establishing brand values or beliefs uses similar techniques. As brand language expert, John Simmons says, ‘The truth of any brand always emerges from the mouths of its own people. In many ways, it’s not unlike creating a character in a novel. You listen and observe, you find a natural way for the character to speak.’  If your brand was a character what would he or she sound like?

4/ If you get stuck, make a pie…

And finally, here’s some helpful advice by historical prizewinning novelist Hilary Mantel:

If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.

Elen Lewis runs writing workshops. www.businesswritingacademy.co.uk

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