Use Role Models for Better Business Writing
Posted By Cynthia Hartwig on June 14, 2011
If you wish you’d written something, use its form or structure as a model. Imitation isn’t just the sincerest form of flattery. It’s the quickest way to write better business proposals, blog posts, or tweets. Take apart any piece of good business writing—really study its structure—and you will learn a lot about how to hook your reader, present arguments for or against, and sustain interest just as the role model does.
Once you know how a role model works, re-create its moves. Form is universal. Think of a symphony if you’re worried about copying or stealing: Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven all used the symphonic form or structure, but not one of them copied the others’ music. A still life of radishes and onions from an ancient Egyptian tomb will never be mistaken for some Cubist pears. So, too, a Supreme Court argument written by John Roberts, a master of legal clarity, can use the same form as an article for PETA that builds the case for animal rights.
Form is universal in art and business. Think of form as the container for your ideas. How you use the form, and what content you pour in, is individual to you. Most business proposals, for example, use the same format for expressing goals, objectives, target audiences, strategies, and tactics. However, the business proposal for the Apple iPad looks nothing like the business proposal for a Lifepak heart defibrillator.
Using writing role models is not stealing. It is not even copying. Shakespeare “borrowed” stories from Holinshed’s Chronicles many times during his playwriting career. No one presumes to call him unoriginal. Into his sixties, Bach copied note for note the “new” music of Verdi, a musician thirty years his junior, in order to learn the popular music of the day. Artists from Michelangelo to Titian to Gauguin apprenticed as painters by drawing the works of older, more experienced artists in order to learn the masters’ tricks of perspective, light play, and expressive use of color. Why shouldn’t you imitate the structure of the blog posts of Susan Orlean and learn from the best?
When you find good writing, model it. Lately, Emily and I have been reading blogs we admire in order to figure out what gets read and commented on in the blogosphere. We like Tamara Sellman’s blog Writer’s Rainbow, for example, because Tamara does a great job of sharing writing resources and information. She continually gives the gift of relevant information to her readers. You, too, can read Writer’s Rainbow not just for what Tamara says but also for how she shares with her readers the gift of her knowledge, the writing resources she finds along the way, and her passion for writing.
Tweets are sweeter when you model the elite. In Twitterland, I love to check in on Andy Borowitz, not just to be entertained but also to learn from his lightning-fast interplay with pop culture and the issues of the day. Andy’s reaction to the news of Donald Trump’s decision not to run for president, for instance: “With 9% unemployment, I’m not sure the US would have elected a president whose catchphrase was ‘You’re fired!’”
When writing gets you thinking, try to beat the authors at their game, using all the tricks they’re using. It’s a time-honored tradition.