How To Be a Better Writer

by Sharleen Jonsson

In Report on Business today, there’s a review of The Innovator’s DNA. I blog on “all things literary” so perhaps you’re surprised I’d comment here on a book published by Harvard Business Review Press. But I’ve added this book to my very long to-read list because I think the creativity of great business minds has relevance to writing.

According to the book’s three authors, really creative people – like Steve Jobs, for example – don’t just have brilliant minds, they often engage in the following behaviors:

  • Associating – Innovators rarely invent something entirely new; what they do is recombine ideas in new ways. This reminds me of something Michael Chabon told an audience at a recent AWP conference: writing is all about similes – similes span the distance between writer and reader. Chabon and other skilled writers find new ways of showing us something is like something else.
  • Questioning – It probably won’t surprise you that innovators love to ask questions. Why is something done in a certain way, and how might that be challenged? Steve Jobs asked himself why a computer needed a fan and that led to a nice, quiet Macintosh. Fiction writers continually ask themselves questions, and one of the most important ones is What if? What if you woke up one day and you were a giant beetle? (The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka.)
  • Observing – Business innovators are intense observers of customers, products, services and technology. As a journalist writing profiles of business leaders, I would note gestures and any personality quirks of my subjects to help give me (and readers) more insight into what made them successful. Smart writers watch people – everywhere, all the time. Why do writers take their work to cafes? Yeah, sure, I go for the double-fudge-nut-squares, but I also find inspiration in watching the other patrons around me.
  • Networking – Innovators search for new ideas by talking to people who may offer a radically different view. Jobs talked to “the crazy guys” at Industrial Light & Magic…and Pixar was born. Smart writers seek out those who can provide an alternative point of view on a subject. This is true with both fiction and nonfiction. Because he takes the time to talk to people in all walks of life, Alain de Botton is one of my favourite writers.
  • Experimenting – Innovators visit new places, seek new information, and try new things. Early on, Jobs took a calligraphy class; later, part of the draw of the Macintosh was its beautiful typography. Experimenting works for writers, too. Decades ago, I attended a workshop that espoused an approach to women’s health that turned upside down everything I’d assumed about self-care. That experience led to one of my first magazine articles.

If you have any other behaviors to add, please comment!

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Ron B. July 30, 2011 at 10:54 am

Not to mention the fact that without people who invented easy-to-use computers, I wouldn’t never even try to be a writer.
Ron — who is taking his first writing class this fall!


sharleenjonsson July 31, 2011 at 10:10 am

True, writing on a computer is so much easier. (On the other hand, I often get right away from the keyboard to stoke my creativity; writing longhand can help when you’re stuck.)

Thanks for commenting, Ron, and enjoy your writing course!


techyeddie August 26, 2011 at 8:42 am

found this post looking up steve jobs. just goes to show, the actions that result from a brilliant mind like his can be applied to many different fields.


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