How Poetry Makes Us Better Business Writers

What’s on the iPod: Lonely Boy by The Black Keys

Is it even possible that I’m digging out from under this pile of work? Really? I’m afraid to say anything for fear one more thing comes in that threatens to stretch today into another 10-hour day. For now, I’m not exhaling – optimism is for suckers.

I’m in the middle of a modern/contemporary poetry course, and we’ve been studying imagist poems. An example is William Carlos Williams’s two versions of the same poem — the second being the imagist version.

Young Woman At a Window
Version 1:

While she sits
with tears on
her cheek

her cheek on
her hand

this little child
who robs her

knows nothing of
his theft

but rubs his

Version 2:

She sits with
tears on
her cheek
her cheek on
her hand
the child
in her lap
his nose
to the glass

So obviously the meaning and the cadence changes with the second version. What also changes is the clarity – the second is more obscure in meaning, isn’t it? The first tells a very definite story, leaves a few things up for question, and leads the reader to a certain conclusion.

Ah, but version two is a poem stripped of extraneous words, and intentionally so. Williams is exact in his approach — you can sense that he’s set out to make this deliberately unclear, up for interpretation and discussion.

So which one is stronger? Depends a little on what you like, but version two packs a pretty big wallop for so small a poem.

How does this relate to business writing? We can look at poetry – and even more specifically the differences between these two versions, and see how the methods in each change the message.

Brevity. Cutting out extraneous wording from our prose — yes, even business prose — can take the focus from a micro level to a macro level. You see more. Maybe not clearly, but what you see in the shorter poem is a tighter message, one that evokes a response in you. You’re now intrigued. You’re also adding your own filters and translating it to fit you. That means you’re spending a little more time contemplating it. And if this were a business ad or sales piece you wrote for a client, you would have made your client very, very happy.

Clarity. But there’s a lesson in the first version too, isn’t there? Not every client wants a riddle wrapped in an enigma as their lead-in to clients. While imagist style can teach us to trim our words to the absolute minimum necessary to evoke the feeling or send the message, sometimes we have to give more information. The first poem does that, and spells out clearly what that message is. It may not stick with you as long (or maybe it does), but the intended message has been received.

Also, both versions use plenty of breaks and pauses in writing to emphasize certain words. If you’re writing  website content, you have less than two seconds to capture a reader’s attention. Why not make it two impactful seconds? But will this work when you’re writing a white paper for that same client — 10 pages explaining a researched study outcome or a trend that brings up specific issues? Not likely.

Right word, right time. What both poems have is an attention to using the exact right word in the exact right place. The same goes for business writing. It’s okay to say “Joglegs inspire athletes to jump higher, run farther, thanks to our full line of footwear.” But why not choose your words more carefully? “Jump higher. Run farther. Your shoes, your life. Joglegs.”

How has poetry or fiction helped you in your business writing?
What one lesson is toughest for you to incorporate into your client writing?

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  • Bryan P October 18, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    Good blog poem makes the point really well. Am on a media course next week so food for thought! Blog Biggles Abroad

  • Cathy Miller October 18, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    Creative writing (as I refer to poetry, fiction, etc.) breathes life back into business writing. At least it does for me.

    When I feel like my business writing is getting too rote, I take a break for some creative writing to get the pizazz back. Another approach I use is telling stories. It's one of the best ways to juice up business writing.

  • Kimberly Ben October 18, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    It's been a long, long time since I did any creative writing – poetry or otherwise. About a Month ago I started working on a short story (fiction) for a contest. I agree with Cathy – when the business writing just isn't flowing, or the ideas aren't coming, I'd take a break and work on my story and it seemed to stimulate ideas and a fresher perspective that translated into my business writing.

  • Ramiro Rodriguez October 18, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    Nice work Lori. I just started trying to improve my business writing and after reading this post, I think I found someone who can help me 🙂

  • Lori October 18, 2012 at 6:21 pm

    Bryan, I think the lessons from poetry and prose definitely do provide a model for good business writing. Good luck on the media course!

    Cathy, your blog is a great example of how you tell stories to add more pizzazz. I love it!

    Kim, isn't that true? I've found a ton of inspiration in poetry form and meter.

    Hi Ramiro! Happy to see you here. I think we should always be looking to improve our writing, no matter what genre we're working in at the time. Thanks for subscribing, by the way. Sent you a note a short time ago.