A few years ago, while visiting a friend who’s a novelist, I peeked into her office and saw that the walls were covered in sticky notes. She was working on a new novel (which just came out, incidentally, and is excellent) and was relying on the sticky notes to track details and chart out her characters’ backstories. I’ll admit it – I was a little jealous. Writing a novel seemed so appealing. Why did I take all those creative writing classes in college, anyway?
But thinking back to those long-ago writing workshops, I realized that in my professional life I rely on many of the rules I learned there. (Hooray for liberal arts education!). Sure, we don’t all get to be novelists, but as communications professionals, we can all learn something from a novelist’s approach.
1. Think holistically
Thinking about a novel as a whole (and tracking details with sticky notes) allows a writer to create internal logic and avoid loose threads. The same is true for communications professionals: taking the time to set up a communications plan for the year and approaching the project with an eye to the long-term will help ensure a consistent strategy and impactful communications pieces that play nicely together.
2. Hook your reader’s interest
Sure, it’s Writing 101, but developing a strong opener takes on a whole new meaning when you are actually looking to ensure that a reader will open their mail. Whether it’s via envelope teaser copy, an email subject line, or a strong headline for a brochure or web page, communications writers have a vested interest in hooking their reader’s interest. For a recent brochure for the College of the Holy Cross, Libretto crafted the headline “Why do we think you're actually going to read this brochure?,” which entices you to open the piece for the answer: “Because we believe in the occasional miracle.” By referencing the College’s Catholic identity in a playful way, this headline conveys the college’s brand identity, engages the prospective student, and gets them reading.
3. Understand your characters
A novelist needs to constantly keep their characters’ personalities and motivations in mind; characters cannot act in a random way solely to advance the story line. Similarly, marketers and business writers need to remember that brand personality must shine through in every single communication. By developing and relying on a robust brand messaging platform, marketers can be sure that they are conveying that personality through keywords and brand voice, and that multiple writers within an organization can confidently create strong, on-brand communications.
4. Pay attention to genre
The best detective novels understand and acknowledge the genre’s famous tropes and then topple them, playing to and with the audience’s expectations. It’s no different for communications professionals. Knowing what your audience expects (they expect to gain a certain amount of information about a school from the viewbook) and then playing with that expectation (presenting that information in ways that are unique yet true to your brand personality) will lead to stronger pieces that keep your readers’ interest.
5. Use active language
Marketers can be inspired by a good page-turner: active language, strong verbs, and smart use of cliffhangers will keeping people reading. And while some novelists successfully include pages of description or spend paragraphs on their characters’ inner monologues, communications professionals need to grab and maintain their readers’ interest, and ultimately encourage them to act. Mark Twain may have said this one best: "Substitute ‘damn' every time you're inclined to write ‘very'; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
Great novels push readers to engage with the world in new ways, spark curiosity and engagement, and resonate long after the final page has been read. In the best of worlds, great communications, too, will be moving, eye-opening, and will motivate the reader to answer a call to action – like visiting a college campus to see if it’s a real fit, donating to a charity, or engaging with a product. As with great novelists, communications professionals shouldn’t be afraid to take risks, be bold, and make a real mark. And, if all else fails, remember that you can keep track of a lot of things with a wall full of sticky notes.