When I turned to creative writing after a long period as a student, tutor and lecturer, I found that there were some basic ways that my writing had to change. This was tough news to take: I had always been complimented on my academic writing. But I got exactly zero gold stars from fiction editors with my early attempts.
Later I found myself writing more and more for business purposes. Here, the academic writing experience served me well and I received compliments for my report writing. But as my creative writing improved and I applied some of my new skills to business documents, my work went to another level of readability and impact. People actually enjoyed reading my reports, though they often couldn’t quite pinpoint exactly what was different about them.
Here I’m going to let you in on some creative techniques that you can use to jazz up your academic or business writing—without losing your job or failing your degree.
1. Use active voice (within convention)
One of the first things I learned in my original science degree was that the passive voice was most appropriate for scientific papers. Use of the passive voice allows the writer to put themselves (or team) into the background. I carried this idea through into my early writing in the humanities and for the most part it worked fine. The writer, or team, are not necessarily supposed to be the subject of a scientific or research paper, and a science paper isn’t meant to read like a thriller (though perhaps that could be fun.)
There will be occasions though, especially in the humanities or in the concluding remarks of a scientific paper that your view or your team’s actions can become the focus of discussion. Here you might be able to say directly what you or your team thought, decided, did. And in business writing, you have even more scope to use active voice.
It’s not just in matters of viewpoint that you can use the active voice. It applies quite simply to the focus of the sentence—an active voice sentence does something where a passive voice sentence has something done to it. Instead of “A period of strong growth was followed by a slide in commodity prices in August 2018” you could write “Commodity prices dropped in August 2018 following a period of strong growth.”
In this example the passive voice (and weak verb—see below) minimise the importance of the drop in commodity prices. There may be reasons you want to do this (e.g. to not panic shareholders) but as a writer you should know what you’re doing at all times—including when you’re deliberately tucking something behind a curtain. For a great series of articles on active vs passive voice check out this series by Capstone Editing.
2. Powerful verbs
As an academic and business writer I tended to have a suite of verbs I’d use quite a lot, simple verbs that capture the tasks of science, research and business, words like: consider, take, put, read, write, think, grow, support, endorse. One of the first things fiction writers learn is to vary and strengthen their verbs: in creative writing, strong verbs create an element of surprise and freshness to a reader. (As with every rule there are exceptions and occasions where strong and varied verbs merely distract.)
You can use a little of this strong-verb juju in your academic or business writing as long as you don’t overdo it (or scare the shareholders.) If you’re struggling with your work sounding dull then the answer might be in changing up your verbs and using something stronger, especially where you’re looking for strategic impact (not in meeting minutes where ‘endorsed’ will do just fine.) In a strategic or summary paper, particularly if your aim is to persuade, choose an accurate, powerful verb (that you could back up with data if asked.)
e.g. Mailing-list sign-ups [grew vs surged]; complaints [fell vs dropped vs plummeted]; customers [seemed to enjoy vs enjoyed vs loved vs raved about]
Stay honest, but don’t be afraid to use the power of verbs.
3. Cut the crap
Words, words, words—way too many of them when I look back on my academic writing. Try this exercise: take any paragraph of your business or academic writing and trim it by ten percent of the word count. When you start to look closely, you’ll find repetition, useless phrases, and poor ordering of thoughts resulting in paragraph-bloat. Do this as a quick edit for every document you work on and you’ll soon start to find it addictive—and that you can fit way more important stuff into the same wordcount
4. Vary sentence length and structure
There’s a wonderful meme going around based on work by writer Gary Provost that really captures what varying sentence lengths can do for creative writing. This works for academic and business writing too, and unlike some of the other techniques listed above, I can’t think of any situation where this would be inadvisable. So give your readers some delicious variety by mixing up your sentence length. You know you want to.
5. Tell a story
I love a made-up story. I almost wrote that there’s nothing as good as a made-up story, but then I remembered the riveting true stories in biography, long-form journalism, and scientific discovery. Not every story is going to be full of drama and surprise but that’s not to say that the elements of good storytelling can’t be used to good effect in other forms of writing.
Structure plays a big part in storytelling—leading the reader through beginning, middle and end. Structure is different in academic and business writing because (and this took me a stupidly long time to learn) in fiction you want to hold back information, while in the other cases you want to build up your argument brick by brick and never leave anything hanging. The placement of the bricks is important. Order your information for impact, looking for a sense of the ‘shape’ of the piece. This sense of ‘shape’ in my experience is common between creative and other forms of writing, a vision for the impact of the work based on the ordering of basic elements.
Where you’re writing a more strategic or summary piece of work, don’t be afraid to be even more blatant about your storytelling. For example, you could hang your argument for a certain business change on the vividly described experience of a certain group of customers. When you start to think of events in terms of story the natural drama of everyday situations will imbue your writing. Tempting though it might be to elaborate, make sure you stick to the truth!
Well that’s it, some of the things that started to happen naturally for me in academic and business writing as I gained more skill in the creative forms. I hope you can put some of these tips into practise and get gold stars for your next document or report.