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Why Writing Is Not A Waste Of Your Time

by Marianne Cantwell

Ever been told that writing is a waste of time? I mean it’s fine to do it on the side, so long as you focus on more serious pursuits. Right?

That’s what I was told too and for years I believed it. As it turns out, that advice was a load of BS.

Now I know that creative writing is the single most useful skill I could have learnt.

 

Let me tell you the story of how I ended up writing for a living.

 

At the age of 18, I graduated from high school, with top grades which, according to the ranking-obsessed Australian university entrance system, would have let me into just about any degree in any university of my choice.

The day after the grades were announced I was in the supermarket with my Mum.

A teacher walked up to us to offer her congratulations.

She turned to me and said: “So what’s it going to be then Marianne? Medicine or Law?”

I shook my head, smiled, and said “neither. I’m going to do an Arts degree. I want to read novels”.

And that’s what I did.

Once at university I took a degree that let me pick and choose stuff I was interested in, creating my own education from a cornucopia (told you I was an English Lit major) of subjects: sociology, psychology, linguistics, film, English, history, and creative writing.

Creative writing was the biggest luxury in that list – it seemed a ridiculous addition to a degree, even for me. It wasn’t like I was going to become a published author or anything.

My friend’s mother warned me in all seriousness “if you were going to write a book you’d have done it by now”. I was 18 so I believed her.

No, I didn’t take creative writing classes out of some desire to write the definitive novel of our time. I just liked writing and wanted to get better at it. I figured it would be a relief from the more serious academic subjects on my schedule.

So I hunkered down, worked hard (again) and entered the university world head on.

4 years later, I graduated with a first class degree, top of my year, president of the debate society and (and this is the kicker) fully qualified to flip burgers for a living.

Turns out an Arts degree isn’t the top of the employability lists. Who’d have thought it?

For a while there I was regretting that decision to take creative writing classes when I could have used that time to use a real skill.

 

Of course this is not where the story ends. I promised you the story of how writing lead to a real living.

Let’s talk about that part next.

 

How reading novels can be your best career move

 

Fastforward a few years and I’d talked my way into a grown-up corporate career, and worked with some of the biggest name companies in the world (of course, I wasn’t writing for a living. There’s no money in writing, right?).

Then a few more years later, I found myself at the helm of a new business.

Suddenly I had to communicate to a whole new audience of people – most of whom didn’t even know who I was.

So I did the only thing I knew how.

 

I sat down, with a clean piece of paper, picked up a pen and started to write them a story.

Then I wrote another.

I wrote about them. I wrote about me. I wrote about people like us: about how it feels to be like us.

I said those things that all of us think, but that only a storyteller is allowed to say.

There were moments I thought “does anyone want to hear that? Can I really say that?” and every one of those moments were the most powerful stories.

Above all, I just wrote.

 

Now, my business is based on writing.

Every connection I have made, every client, every opportunity (and every cent) has come via my writing. Period.

The single most useful part of my education was the semester where I sat in that creative writing class, my favourite author in front of me taking a guest seminar.

She sat at the head of our round seminar table, short grey hair clipped to perfection. Pursing her lips at our boorish undergraduate attempts at prose:

“It’s not real”, she said, shaking her head, “your writing has to be real.”

“So you lost your bag on the bus and you were annoyed. What does that mean?

I want to hear about your red shoes, the ones with the scuff mark, that pinched your left heel. I want to hear that you were wearing then on the day you lost your bag on the bus.

I want to hear about how you were thinking more about the shoe and the scuff mark than the lost bag and how you wondered if you could go home and change before going to the police station to report your bag and how you knew that was messed up at the time but that’s just the way it was.

I want to hear about the imperfections of your experience, not the surface of the story.”

 

She was right. Read the best novels, or the most gripping magazine articles, or that blog post that stays with you, and you’ll see – it’s not the plot or ideas that connect with you, it’s the red shoes pinching your heel on a hot day.

That’s a lesson I use every day.

 

Here’s why:

Ever had that moment at a networking event, the one where you’ve just shaken hands with Pete, or Mark, or Roy  - whatever his name he’s the balding man in the checked shirt who always shows up to these things.

Anyway. You’re in the first minute of telling Roy what you do… and you already know he doesn’t care.

It’s uncomfortable – partly because you didn’t pee before walking in you’ve drunk too much tea and now you’re trapped for at least another 5 minutes in a conversation about accounts – but mostly it’s uncomfortable because you know Roy should care.

What you’re saying has value and if only he got your message then you could help each other.

But even though he is nodding with that polite half smile, you know he doesn’t care and he wishes he was speaking to someone else.

If you run a business, you need people to care.

If people don’t care what you do, people don’t show up, people don’t buy, and you don’t have a business.

This is the problem:

Roy doesn’t care about you

Sorry. Sure, he heard your tale of ‘this is what I do and who it helps and why it’s important’ but he didn’t have a reason to care. Here’s why:

  • You don’t get people to care by listing features of your service.
  • You don’t get people to care by explaining and preaching reasons this is important.
  • You don’t get people to care by speaking in business-speak platitudes.
  • You don’t get people to care because your business card border is a slightly darker shade of blue this time
  • You don’t get people to care by copying another person’s style and hoping ‘that works’.

You get people to care by sharing a story that they already care about.

A story about them.

The natural language of humans is ‘story’.

That’s what humans have done since we came down from the trees. Told stories.

If your business is going to rely on humans (and it will), then show them some respect and speak their language.

Speak the human language of stories – stories as real as that day you got on the bus with the scuffed red shoe and the pinched heel. This isn’t about writing the definitive novel of our time. It’s about you, where you are now, connecting with the people you need to reach.

 

Writing isn’t a waste of time

It’s the most powerful way to communicate the message you care about.

You don’t need a writing degree. You don’t need anyone’s permission. You don’t need an expensive computer.

I know you want people to care about what you do, so forget sticking up ads or adjusting your logo or browsing competitors’ websites. Start with what matters: your people, and you, and the stories you have to share.

Make them real, make them true, make them full of the things you wanted to say to them… but never thought you were allowed to speak.

Above all, start writing.

Now.

 

  • http://www.wottdey.com/ Michael

    Thank you Marianne, these are very sound words of advice you have given today. I made similar educational choices to you, and heard similar kinds of comments; but worst of all my own comments against my writing were the strongest and most destructive. However, at some point, at the end of last year, I just started taking baby-steps, and set up my blog and started writing, just about what I’m interested in, and it really is fun, and life-affirming. Even now when I don’t have so many readers, the positive comments that do come, are really nice to hear; but most of the fun is coming from writing for myself. For me, it also ties in with what you wrote recently about finding what makes you come alive. This writing process for a blog is a great way to discover this. Don’t you think?

  • Michelle

    Thanks Marianne for the article. I’m not alone in the world…I have a BA (hons) degree in Writing! A mix of journalism, creative writing, screenwriting for TV and radio, plays and poetry. I was a geek in my teens, love books, stories…still am! Keep writing and I will too :-) Michelle x

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ERTCOGFNDUEB6O3OQSVTZZLJZI Thomas

    Yes, my third grade teacher told me the same thing about the writing. Then my seventh grade teacher and I heard it once again in sophomore English. Unfortunately, I didn’t listen, and insisted on writing poetry, which is why I threw garbage for ten years. ZombieBlog

  • http://youcanthidethespark.wordpress.com/ Katherine

    Marianne, I flat-out LOVE this post. Thank you!

    P.S. I don’t have any qualifications in writing. I mucked up my English Lit A Level, didn’t get in to study English at uni, and it all went downhill from there. For 20 years I gave up and thought my dream of being a writer was a pipe dream and I needed to seriously ’grow up’…now I make my living from writing, I’ve just started writing a blog, and I’m working on two children’s books. Who would have thought it?!

  • http://juliabarnickle.com/ Julia Barnickle

    That’s such a good point, Marianne, about the natural language of humans being “story”. I’ve always been a good story teller in person, and yet I sometimes forget to tell stories when I’m writing. I’m going to start writing more stories now, thanks to your inspiration.

  • Maggie Dodson

    I love it, I love it, I love it.

  • Patrick

    Thank you for the refreshing view that writing is so important and for the reminder that to get people to care about your writing, you need to share a story about them.  I used to be in sales and that was why you had to find a way to create a benefit for that person.  I see that writing is the same way.  I am going to take note of that in the next article I post on my new blog, which, as I tweeted last week, is my Play Project as I am working through your awesome book.  Thanks again!

  • miss esta

    This post couldn’t have come at a better time!! I just started my new blog this month and needed some more inspiration. THANK YOU!! :)

    http://www.missesta.com

  • http://www.facebook.com/anne.garage Anne Garage

    Hi! Thanks for pointing me towards this article in your blog. I feel exactly the same. I have a degree in English Literature and an MA in writing but in the career world, I’ve felt that these skills are not useful. But thanks to your book and other career coaching work I’ve been doing, I’ve realised that my skills in writing, storytelling and communicating are very useful indeed! I used to wish that I’d been less academic and that I’d learned a trade so that I could earn my living independently. Now I realise I was looking at it the wrong way round. Words are my trade!

  • Suzanne Dunn

    I love words. Words can create lives but yet destroy them in an instant.. They can feel like silk but can transform into a rose’s thorn without warning. Words can lift a human to the bright blue sky and in a second can back a person into a dark shadowed corner. Words are born in our heart, manufactured in our brain, and processed through our environment. Words support the world for better or worse to pave the way for humans to evolve and live in grace. I LOVE WORDS.

  • Ashley Schmalz

    I can’t say that I went to school for writing but this article touched me so much it almost brought me to tears. Thank you.

  • Karley

    I couldn’t agree more! I started out my career 15 years ago as a graphic designer. It had always been easier for me to communicate in pictures. Gradually as my career progressed, I moved my way over to the strategic side, and now I tackle full on brand development and marketing strategy for a living.

    Everything I do requires solid writing skills. Even when I designing, I need to sell my concepts with short succinct stories about each concept to create a connection between my client and the concept.

    I’ve been told by some pretty top notch writers that I write very well, but I still read and read and read. Fiction, non-fiction, historical pieces, blogs, magazines. All because I want to continue to learn how to improve the way I communicate and create resonance and connection with the people I support.

    Of course, with being in Portland at WDS, I couldn’t turn down a trip to Powell’s Books. I found a great book called: “Words That Work.” – by Dr. Frank Luntz. It is awesome and he has a great sense of humour. I highly recommend it.

    Also, for your fans how want a really kick butt, practical book, to learn how to improve their writing, I love and often refer to: “On Writing Well.” – by William Zinsser.

  • Alexis Staley

    Marianne,

    Wonderfully helpful to be reminded that writing is not only worth my personal time, but is also an honorable career- a highly influential one at that (or at least, it has the potential to be highly influential) Because, it really is about communicating, which is one of the most important elements of human behavior. Thanks for another great post.

    Alexis

  • http://roshandejong.com/ Roshan de Jong

    Thank you, Marianne. You wrote just the story I needed to hear.
    You are right.

  • http://roshandejong.com/ Roshan de Jong

    “Who would have thought it?!”? You did. And that was all it takes, apparently.
    Good luck with those books. I love children’s books (Pooh, anyone?) :)

    By the way, do you publish over Amazon (or something), or use an old-school publisher?

  • http://roshandejong.com/ Roshan de Jong

    Most successful careers involve communications, don’t they.
    I love how they put it at 37Signals: when deciding which of two programmers to hire, hire the better writer. Of English, not code.
    That aside from how healthy a bit of writing is for us too; in public to connect, or in private to cleanse.

    Need to remind myself of that more often..

  • Youcanthidethespark

    Hey thanks Roshan! I have written three picture books and am currently sending them to agents and publishers. Fingers crossed….

  • Jo Gifford

    I love this post :) the creative industries are so often fobbed of as jobs that aren’t real or worthwhile, yet where do we look for innovation? Creativity. Well done for following your dreams and helping others to do the same xx

  • CC

    I have been trying to finish a book on women’s health through history. This book will tell the truth behind so many unneccessary surgeries that women are plagued with. However, the living situation I have now is sometimes distracting. Two different cultures. However, I am glad I read your blog and was made privy to your story.

  • Leon S Kennedy

    Roshan, your own writing here looks a bit sketchy & frankly, you sound silly with that sly remark about coding. Technology is our language today. Writers are earning less than 1961 wages & those wages are decreasing. People are buying & playing video games because you get to actually BE in those stories instead of just reading about them. “Coders” get paid a LOT of money & software developers start-START- AT $165,000. Keep eating your Ramen Noodles, aspiring writers.

  • http://roshandejong.com/ Roshan de Jong

    Hey Leon,
    You’re right: coding is an amazing form of creation. And it’s no surprise that’s valued by the market place! I was simply saying that being a good communicator is will add to your market value in probably any job, including that of a programmer/coder. And writing is one of the premier forms of (business) communication. We’re not talking fiction here.

    Is that something we see eye-to-eye on, Leon?

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