A Novel Approach to Business Writing

Have you ever found yourself struggling to write something at work?  You might have all the empirical data you need to write a persuasive case study, or a great idea for a blog post.  But when you sit down to write, you just spin your wheels and get stuck.

I knew this feeling well when I was a marketing director.  It wasn’t unusual for presentation decks and strategy documents to get pushed back until the last minute.  Busy managers know how easy it is to get sidetracked when urgent new projects fight for your attention, especially when you aren’t as energized by the project that needs to get done.  This was a regular part of my work life.

And then one day I had a crazy idea that changed how I approach business writing.

Why I am qualified to tell you how to approach your business writing

First, some background.  I have always had a deep passion for storytelling, and writing a novel has been one of my major life goals ever since I took a creative writing class in college.   Over the years, I made several attempts, but other obligations – work, family, and life in general – always halted my progress before I finished the second chapter of whatever I started.

The crazy idea that struck me was, in fact, the plot for a novel that I thought was worth writing.  After a few weeks of pondering, the arc of the story – the beginning, middle, and end – came into clear focus, and I sketched an outline.  After three months of writing and a year of editing five full drafts, my novel, Greenbeaux, was complete.  It was a time consuming project to be sure, and while I wouldn’t say that writing an 84,000-word novel was easy, it felt effortless compared with many of the business writing assignments that piled up on my desk at work.

What made this big project different from all of the small ones I did only grudgingly when faced with a tight deadline?

Some tips on how to write well…to strict deadlines

For starters, I was working from a roadmap, with mileposts laid out along the way to steer the story from start to finish.  The words – which came slowly on many projects at work – flowed out from scene-to-scene, connecting the dots between characters and the challenges they faced.

What I have since learned is that the structure and discipline necessary to bring a novel to completion is applicable to much smaller business writing projects.  Following a few best practices can help you shape the narrative, and can make the time you spend writing more efficient and enjoyable.

Frame the problem and the solution:  Have you ever read a novel or seen a movie in which the protagonist doesn’t face any challenges?  Neither have I.  Obstacles are a part of life and business, and they are what hold the attention of an audience, whether you are writing a novel or a business plan.  If you frame the problem and solution properly – with data and market insights in the case of business writing – you can bring the reader to your side and make them believe that the hero (your character, your product, your company) can and will prevail.

Look forward, reason back: This truism of strategic thinking is as applicable to fiction writing as it is to business problem solving.  It is easier to navigate your way through a writing project if you work backward from the conclusion you believe the reader should reach.  Whether you are making a business case or telling a story that communicates the essence of your brand, laying out well reasoned stepping-stones allows the reader to make the logical leaps necessary to reach the same conclusion.

Stay on-message:  Every detail you write should lead somewhere and support your thesis.  Anecdotes and sidebars can be interesting, but they must serve a purpose that helps the audience follow the story.  Some of the best jokes and twists I included in the first draft of my novel were edited out later because they did not add to the plot, and in some cases, made the story harder to follow.

And finally, you have to be interested in the story you are telling.  If you’re bored writing it, there is a good chance that the audience will be bored reading it.  I was able to start, finish, and edit (and edit, and edit, and edit) my novel because I was invested in the story and enjoyed the process of telling it.  This holds true for business writing as well.

An e-mail campaign tells a story through a progression of messages.  A case study is a morality tale about a success or a lesson learned.  And a strategic plan is a complex story – not unlike a novel – with a hero (a product or company), villains (competitors), a backstory (data and market analysis), and a plot that explains how the hero will overcome adversity and thrive.

Reframing the business writing process in this way can help you tell your story more effectively.  And hopefully, allow you to enjoy the process of telling it.

ABOUT David Bergheim

David Bergheim joined Wordsmithie as Chief Strategy Officer following a 17-year stint in higher education, most recently as Director of Marketing at the University of San Diego’s School of Business Administration. He was previously the Director of MBA Career Management at Emory University, and served as Associate Director and Alumnus-in-Residence at the Yale School of Management. David has an MBA from Yale and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of Arizona. He lives in San Diego with his wife and two sons, and spends his free time coaching soccer and writing novels.