The Delicate Dance of Telling a Better Story

“It’d be great if it shrunk by 25-30%, but only if the main content remains intact.”

Usually, I’m saying things like this to myself. But this time, a friend had come in need of some help with a script for a project he was working on. It had been written and rewritten by five different people before it got to me. That’s five different voices. Five different tones. Five different experiences. Five different styles. I had my work cut out for me.

For any writer, the job of hacking away at your own precious words ("Kill your darlings!") is one of the hardest, but most important things you can do. So when I get a chance to take the cleaver to someone else’s work, I can't help but feel a bit masochistic. After all, it's so much easier to kill someone else's darlings.

But this wasn't just a butcher job. Anyone can aimlessly hack away. Essentially, I needed to cut, blend, reorganize, clarify, curate, and synthesize. The goal was cohesion, not cutting. Better storytelling, not slice and dice. My friend needed a surgeon, not a butcher.

I rarely pause to think about what I do when I write. I just do it. It’s based on years of practice, research, practice, teaching, and more practice. While I have a style and tone, it never feels complete. It’s probably how Tiger feels about his golf game.

But I recently came across an idea that caused me to pause and consider just how many different skills and types of thinking go into creating a piece of writing. Writing is less about learning, knowing, and practicing specific skills. It’s more about how you think, analyze, and synthesize.

In that sense, people pay a copywriter (like me) as much for their quantifiable skill set as they do for the more unquantifiable thinking process. The more interesting part of all of this is what exactly does that thinking process look like? What are people paying me for?

Doing the Delicate Dance

Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO (the experts on design thinking), speaks about convergent and divergent thinking in his book, Change by Design. Western culture puts a heavy emphasis on logic and deduction, squeezing out room for multiple outcomes. In reality, we need both divergent and convergent thinking to find the best answer, not the right answer.

Brown says, “To experience design thinking is to engage in a dance among four mental states;” Primarily, divergent & convergent thinking, with analysis and synthesis as secondary functions.

According to Brown, divergent thinking is the route to innovation, the creation of options, while convergent thinking is the reverse, the elimination of those options. You’ve got to open up a ton of doors to see what’s behind them before you begin closing them. (Check out the picture below for a better understanding).

We must have both types of thinking in the creation of anything new.

Becoming a Better Dancer

This is why, as a writer, it’s so important to keep a notebook of ideas. As Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Linus Pauling pointed out: “To have a good idea, you must first have lots of ideas.”

With so much focus on “innovation” these days, we lose sight of the fact that creativity is much more complex than telling people to “be creative.” Problems begin to happen when we have too many ideas. At some point, we have to begin the painful process of culling the best (I just can’t get away from the slaughtering imagery here!).

Brown goes on to say, “there is good reason why design education draws in equal measure upon art and engineering. The process of the design thinker looks like a rhythmic exchange between the divergent and convergent phases.”

Divergent thinking is the writer’s notebook while convergent thinking is the willingness to kill your darlings. But this is only half the process. What about those secondary functions?

The Essence of Storytelling

When we analyze something, we break it apart to better understand it. When we synthesize, we put the pieces back together to create new meaning.

As the two function in tandem with divergent and convergent thinking, we identify patterns. We take raw data, mix it up, and make a new story. We begin to organize, interpret, and, eventually, create. In short, we learn how to tell better stories.

According to Brown, “[These four states] are the seeds of design thinking - a continuous movement between divergent and convergent processes, on the one hand, and between the analytical and synthetic, on the other.”

Essentially, this dance is what it means to be a writer.

When we write, we must identify multiple ideas, analyze them, blend them, and prune them, before putting them back to together to have new meaning. What seems like one simple task is actually extremely complicated.

The act of creation, then, lies within synthesis, but you must have the other three to get there. It can take hours or days to organize, interpret, or weave strands of data into coherent and meaningful text. Add to the fact that it must be compelling, consistent, and believable and you begin to see that the process goes beyond a simple set of techniques and skills.

So when my friend asked me to shrink his script by 25-30% while keeping the main content intact, he was really asking me to help him tell a better story. As a copywriter and marketer, it's my job to understand this.

So the next time you’re working on a project that seems fairly straightforward, or you’re trying to work out your new rates, keep this delicate dance in mind.

What seems simple on the surface is anything but.