Writing at work: use boundaries for maximum creativity

Writing at work: use boundaries for maximum creativity
November 17, 2015 Beth Nyland

This post originally appeared on the StoryStudio Chicago blog, where Beth Nyland teaches “Words for Work” classes—including a self-directed, online course in Business Writing Fundamentals, available now.

I have blue hair, call myself The Corporate Poet, and wear Wonder Woman high tops to work.

Some days, I swap the high tops for more formal footwear. But the blue dye is permanent, and the unusual title is part of my personal brand. In spite of my creative appearance—and because of my creative experience—even ultra-conservative companies pay me to help their people become more skilled and confident communicators.

Why? Because creativity makes all the difference in the way we communicate at work.

Any time you develop a message—whether you’re writing, presenting, managing, leading, or thinking on your feet—you’re committing a creative act. You might be introducing a new concept, or rethinking an old one. Either way, you’re using ideas to make things happen. And that’s creative.

The creativity I’m suggesting is not aimless or out of control. It’s purposeful and strategic. When I write for work, I use boundaries to focus my time and ideas, so everything moves in the direction of business results. These boundaries feature prominently in the classes I teach, like our new online Business Writing Fundamentals course.

For instance, before I even start to write, I stop and ask myself some key questions about the message and the audience, and the language I want to use to convey that message.

At StoryStudio, we call this the Business Writer’s Checklist. It’s a great tool that we share in our business writing classes. Whether I invest five minutes or 45 minutes with this tool, it’s always valuable time. The checklist results in a set of boundaries that keep me from veering off course when I write.

I also depend on a style guide—or at least a handful of do’s and don’ts—as boundaries for things like punctuation, capitalization, and word choice. When working solo, I trust a style guide to answer questions and remove doubts about mechanics, which builds my confidence as a writer. When collaborating with others, a style guide helps resolve differences of opinion. Instead of arguing about commas and capital letters, we can all focus on what’s really important: the message.

Even at the first draft stage, the most freewheeling part of my writing process, I use boundaries of time to motivate progress. First, I commit space on my calendar to write. A full-fledged appointment, with start time, end time, and an alert to remind me. Then, when it’s go time, I use a timer to sprint my way through the first draft. First, three minutes just to get started. When the timer rings, not only do I have a start, I have a choice. I can slow my pace and finish more deliberately, relaxing into the full duration of my writing appointment. Or I can set that timer again and keep sprinting. I almost always choose tiny bursts of timed writing. I’m fueled by adrenaline and fast results.

My sprint-induced drafts are seldom pretty. But once the words are on the page, I can use another set of boundaries to clean them up. For me, this means five passes through the work, each addressing a different shortcoming I’m sure to find—like missing or repeated words, long-winded introductions, and buried action items.

All these boundaries make writing feel like a game. Challenged by constraints, I have to be creative and fast and strategic. And I want to win. Eventually, I have to stop writing and press send. Once the message is delivered, if I’ve played within and to the full extent of my boundaries, my reader will respond with action.

And that’s how business gets done.


Photo credit: Lotus Carroll via flickr


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