As someone who likes books, has an English degree and makes a living from writing, I get asked who my favourite authors are a lot. There are too many to mention them all. But here are four, along with some thoughts on what they have taught me about writing for brands.
Hemingway – tight prose and the power of implication
At his best, in short stories such as Indian Camp, Big, Two-hearted River and The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Hemingway’s economic, repetitive style suggests the emotions of the characters without making them explicit. Because so much is left unsaid, the reader senses the epiphany as if the significant moment was happening to them. You are being given the information: you are not told how to feel. A great lesson. If you provide the evidence for a claim, sometimes, if it’s powerful enough, you don’t need to make the claim itself. The audience will discover it for themselves.
Shakespeare – making the abstract tangible
Like Tolstoy and Dickens, all of human experience is to be found in any of the works. But one of the particular delights of Shakespeare is the figurative language which the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (my favourite) defines as, ‘departing from a literal use of words; metaphorical’. Take this evocation of freedom from As You Like It:
‘I must have liberty
Withal, as large a charter as the wind,
To blow on whom I please.’
Whenever you are asked to write a positioning statement for a brand, define a new mission statement, or write a CEO’s review of the year for an Annual Report, it’s good to try to work in a little metaphor here and there. Abstract ideas become easier to grasp if they are made material.
JD Salinger – sentiment and mood
Sentiment: ‘Exaggerated and self-indulgent feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia’ (the OCD again). Feelings are rather frowned upon in business. Yet if you avoid stimulating the feelings of the consumer you won’t get very far. When I was growing up, a BMW press ad dedicated over 90% of its layout to a beautiful image of the car that made you want it. And there’d be a quirky headline. This stimulated desire. Now the ads bludgeon you with technical statistics and then tell you the car will make you feel joy. Er, I need to feel it to believe it. Salinger’s alienated first person narrators trying to figure out what they feel about things make you feel things as they do. Create emotion: don't claim it.
WH Auden – saying it like it is
The poetry is, of course, superlative. But try his prose. He is never fazed. And he is refreshingly sceptical about fashionable theories. Here he is dismantling the pretentious style of the existentialists:
‘The stimulus that led Mr Camus to write this well-meaning but maddeningly woolly and verbose essay is his horror at the spectacle of our era’
After a few more lines he explains why the French are so forgiving of communism (‘However horrified they may be morally, they cannot help feeling that to be against any revolution is reactionary and un-French'). This combination of intellect and blunt talk is thrilling because the brilliance of the insight is always laid bare. A useful lesson: when you have something worthwhile to say, say it in simple language.
One could go on. All great writers are dealing in truth. Perhaps that’s the most important lesson of all. Message first: then the writing.