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Become a Better Writer: Death Stars and Death Cabs

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I recently corresponded with a JSOM faculty member who asked me if I could share some tips for helping graduate students become more creative writers. That question inspired me to write this post (I won’t mention that professor’s name so as to protect that person from the wrath of the students whose writing abilities are being called into question, but you know you who are. Thank you for the inspiration. I’ll take you up on that cup of coffee soon).

Let’s begin by asking: What makes writing “creative?” And does it even matter within the confines of academic and professional written communications? Absolutely. For one thing, a paper that lacks creativity is boring. It follows that a bored professor is an uninterested reader who might not care to engage with your material. What are the odds of getting a good grade from a bored, unengaged reader? Well, your material had better be so insightful that the reader is willing to withstand the boredom to engage with it.

Setting boredom aside, let’s consider the fact that all professional and academic writing is persuasive writing. You are trying to persuade someone — a professor, a prospect, a colleague — to buy into your idea so that you can gain a good grade, a credit card transaction, a meeting, a policy change. In this age of over-saturation, haven’t we read it all? Is there any new idea left? That might not be the case, but I think you would agree that most new business ideas these days are really just new permutations of existing ones (“the next Uber,” for instance). Who is more likely to persuade someone — a writer who uses creativity to express an idea or someone who lacks that ability? I know which one I would chose.

So let’s start on our journey to become, better more creative writers. I’m sure that you have been wondering for some time now about the title of this post. Let’s solve that mystery.

The More Lego Pieces You Have, the Better Death Star You Can Build

Simply put, words are the building blocks of language. The larger your vocabulary, the better your ability to draw from it to express yourself. The same concept applies to building one of those Lego Death Star models. Imagine trying to build one but having only a bucket full of red 2x4 bricks. Now imagine a bucket next to it that contains every piece that Lego has ever built. Which bucket do you suppose will help you build a better Death Star?

I’m not saying you should cram as many words as you can into every paper you write. I’m saying you need enough words to get your point across. If you are in graduate school or in business, you need to draw from a bigger bucket of words so that you can express bigger concepts. You probably have a larger vocabulary of words related to your program of study than the average person. But how does your general vocabulary compare to others? Chances are, if you have a larger-than-average vocabulary, you already are a more creative writer than most. There are a number of excellent apps that will help you quickly build your vocabulary. I encourage you to download one and use it. Daily. Expand your bin of Legos as quickly as you can.

Familiarity is the Enemy of Creativity

Speaking of words, I want to introduce you to one that will help you become a more creative writer. Ostranenie, or defamiliarization (translated as “making strange”) is a literary technique coined by Russian literary theorist and writer Viktor Shklovsky. The idea is to make the familiar seem new by using different words. Take, for instance, one of my favorite band names of all time: Death Cab for Cutie. When I first came across it, I had no idea what it meant. All of the words were familiar to me, but they were used in a combination that made me stop and take notice. What in the world was Ben Gibbard trying to convey? All I had to go on was the idea that, although what was being described was charmingly attractive, in all likelihood there was going to be a bloody mess down the road somewhere. That’s ostranenie.

What does some weird Russian literary term have to do with writing for business and academia? I’m glad you asked. Marketers use defamiliarization all the time (how about a herd of cows holding signs that read “Eat Mor Chikin?” And who painted those signs, anyway?). But the question remains: Should you use it in your academic papers? (My apologies in advance to you professors who will be challenged with the concept of ostranenie when you evaluate those upcoming assignments). I think there’s a way to do it that will improve your writing.

Do you remember when you first learned punctuation? How fabulous to end a sentence with exclamation points!!! And then there are those wonderful ellipses. … Semicolons are such fun, too; so are those — you know — dashes. And-what-about-the-hyphen? Fun! Fun! Fun!!!!!!!!!!

Yeah. Punctuation should be subtle — and used only when needed. Don’t try to fill your next paper with reimagined business terms done ostranenie style, either. Try finding a way to reimagine one business term in a way that is fresh and defamiliarizes the reader enough to stop and reconsider a concept that has become mind-numbing. Always be on the lookout for the concept while you read, too. If you read a passage in a business journal that strikes you as odd somehow but really makes a familiar point seem fresh and new, that’s probably ostranenie. Pay attention and you will soon have a new tool at your disposal to persuade your reader.

I think that’s enough for now, don’t you? I wish you much success in your writing and hope my ideas will inspire you and help you become a better writer. Until next time, keep collecting those Legos and making the familiar strange.

Jimmie Markham

Jimmie Markham brings a widely-ranging life and professional experience to his job as a communications manager at JSOM.  As an infantryman in the U.S. Army, he learned to “improvise, adapt and overcome” and that “no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.”  He’s been dealing with the unexpected ever since and, in doing so, has become a skilled and dedicated communications/marketing/customer-service and sales-support professional with nearly 20 years of experience using improvisational, critical-thinking, technical and people skills to advance the interests of external and internal clients. A BA in Art & Performance (creative writing emphasis) from UT Dallas helped polish his natural predilection and passion for the written word. Read more articles

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