By Kirk Livingston, Adjunct Professor of English, Professional Writing
“How badly do you want to write?”
The English Department at the University of Northwestern sharpens students who want to write. We use tools, exercises, expectations, encouragement to help students find their voice and move forward. But—let’s be honest—the chances of getting rich and famous by writing are not great. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there has never been a better time to write, nor has there been a better time to define for yourself what success looks like. Even better news: the Christian who undertakes using her or his gift of writing to serve others has an unlimited horizon for writing meaningful copy. Best news of all: rich and famous are not all they are cracked up to be.
As an instructor in the professional writing program at UNW, I see lots of talented students—people with a knack for putting words together to present probing ideas. But these students sometimes don’t know how to push this writing life forward as a vocation. In so many ways, writing seems like a life that does not reward the hard work of conceptualizing and setting ideas into words. But with a series of clues to follow and directional signals our classes offer, students begin to see that the very skills they use to tell their story can be used to tell someone else’s story.
“Wait,” you say. “Isn’t that selling out? Aren’t you just working for 'the man'?”
And no: using your storytelling gift for an organization whose mission you believe in is a way of participating with that organization. Three skills, in particular, recommend themselves to writers seeking to help others tell their stories.
Skill #1: Default to storytelling
The writer collaborates with a marketing mission, for instance, by collecting all the loose ends and pulling them together in a way that helps an entire organization live out a story. Studying how stories work and especially writing our own stories is the perfect training for helping organizations tell their stories. Story-telling always requires a bit of courage. It takes boldness to spring forth with a different way of looking at things. How will people respond to my very different telling? And yet, this is exactly the way new stories and innovative ideas develop. This is the precise route into connecting with a new generation of people. Maybe now you can see why this is so valuable: Jesus talked about new wineskins because those old wineskins could not bear the load of what a new generation needed to hear.
Story-telling is not insignificant. In fact, it is a skill that for-profit and nonprofit corporations hold dear. And this: managers and directors pay actual cash money for that skill. Of course, story-telling begins with a writer working through a different perspective, which brings me to Skill #2.
Skill #2: Write from inside your customer’s skin
Businesses are frequently run by people rich in analytical skills. This is not a jab, just a truism: analysis and management skills are high on anyone’s list for keeping a company productive. You may realize already that analysis and creativity, while not mutually exclusive, each have their own set of conditions. It gets hard to move between them.
Hiring people who can inhabit this other place, this place of speaking from another person’s voice, of voicing their concerns and interests and preferences—these are workaday tasks for fiction writers and poets. And when these skills are brought under the auspices of a shared mission, well, maybe you can see how an entire team may benefit from hearing how their work affects their audience. The creativity it takes to write from someone else’s perspective can be immediately applicable for a team trying to understand what their customer needs, or even other creatives trying to sort out how to delight their customer.
That’s because teams get stuck.
Skill #3: Free-write toward new ideas
One thing writers get good at is getting unstuck. Cold showers do it for some. A five-mile run works for others. But sooner or later writers try the exercise of free-writing. Set a time for 10 minutes and write whatever comes to mind. Most of what the writer writes is absolute dreck, of course.
But…. But—buried in in the 17th line of nonsense are five words that kinda make sense. Those five words merit another free-writing exercise. Those five words suggest an approach that just might work. And so the writer opens that door and writes all the words that fall from that approach.
Companies get stuck. Marketing gets stuck. Ad agencies get stuck. Management gets stuck. Engineering gets stuck. The exercise of free-writing, applied to these different situations of stuck-ness, has the potential to bring brand-new knowledge to stuck situations and open new doors. Interestingly, the writer who can articulate how they free-write may also have the opportunity to lead through brainstorming activities that help others get unstuck.
None of these three skills are exactly easy. All of these skills require the discipline and concentration of a writer’s mind. In fact, much of the writing life remains difficult and hard to explain. Wrestling ideas into words and lining them up in order on a screen is not for the weak of heart or thin-skinned. Helping people see the value of those words is hard. But these skills can have a generative effect on the writer and a replenishing effect on an organization. The entire writing project is part of a larger plan God uses in our lives to grow us and provide for our need.
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