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Creative Habits Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Writers

Here's why entrepreneurs and creative writers have more in common than they think.

When it comes to popular wisdom about career choices, there’s an enduring myth that people who go into business are after money and people who go into creative fields want personal fulfillment. This simplistic division ignores the reality that plenty of millionaires have been created through creative enterprises. But, even more dangerously, this myth suggests that these two professional “types” are rigidly defined — with little crossover in experiences or applicable skills.

Running a self-publishing platform, I encounter writers every day whose skills and business savvy rival — and often outperform — many of the business pros I know. These are the habits that truly set them apart, and that many entrepreneurs could stand to improve on.

Perfect and practice your pitches

That’s right: “pitches” plural. Most writers don’t start out by waltzing into a major publishing house or magazine. They don’t get handed a plum gig right off the bat. They spend years pitching stories and ideas to editors and publishing houses, only to be rejected or ignored time and again. Instead of pitching the exact same idea elsewhere, they then have to re-imagine the pitch to tailor it to the specific needs of their new targets.

Too often, we as entrepreneurs think that our idea is perfect as it is and miss out on opportunities to see it in a new light. That might mean shortening or expanding on it. Other times, it means emphasizing one main point over another. If your business pitch isn’t opening doors, re-consider what you’re emphasizing. Then, do the hard work of abandoning parts of a business plan that simply won’t work, which leads me to my next point.

Prepare to “kill your darlings”  

Author William Faulkner once said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” He was referring to the characters, names, scenes, plot points, and turns of phrase that the writer loves deeply, but that ultimately weigh down the story and don’t add enough value to warrant keeping them.

“Kill your darlings” is a lesson that writers are taught often, as editors hack away at their beloved and clever work in order to make more coherent stories. Entrepreneurs are not immune to these attachments, either. Often they clutch too tightly (and for too long) to a technology product that is simply not catching on but took years to build, to a brand logo that is adorable but not resonating, or to a business model that was so brilliant in theory but simply isn’t showing returns.

So this is what they should take to heart: scrapping these darlings isn’t giving up on them. It’s letting them become the lessons you needed to build a business that works well.

Show more than you tell

This is some of the earliest advice writers get. It gets repeated throughout their careers, and generally for good reason. To build a dynamic world within a story, readers need to be immersed in the settings and experiences of characters. Instead of calling a building tall, writers will describe the length of the shadow it casts across a certain swath of city. Instead of describing a woman as suspicious of others, Flannery O’Connor wrote, “She looked at nice young men as if she could smell their stupidity.” Instead of saying that a building is full of memories, Charles Blow writes, “It was the kind of building that remembered things, deep-down things, things that rode tears into the world, telling them back to anyone old enough or wise enough to know how to listen with their eyes.”

As an entrepreneur, you won’t get far simply telling investors and customers that your product is superior and revolutionary. Like writers have writing prompts on which they can cut their teeth, you will need proof in the form of data demonstrating how it outperforms competitors, testimonials from early adopters, and multimedia demos including infographics, video, and more that show how your product or service actually functions.

Draw inspiration from unlikely sources

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking,” Haruki Murakami wrote in his novel, Norwegian Wood. Reading interviews and stories from the most prolific writers, you find that they draw inspiration not only from the best writers that preceded them, but from everything from visual art to their FedEx guy to a nightmare they heard recounted.

It is having a small field of vision in both in business and in creative fields that brings us the same recycled ideas over and over again. Too often, entrepreneurs set their sights on being “the next Facebook” or “the next Uber” or “the next Amazon” because they are looking at the end-product: a massively successful global brand. But by looking beyond the business world and modeling your idea on something bigger and bolder, you will build something that does more than seek to replicate a success story in the same field: it revolutionizes the field itself.

Create something the world needs

“Between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting,” writes Cormac McCarthy in All The Pretty Horses. Writers speak often of a story that needed to be told, compelled either by some internal desire to let the story live, or to fill a silent gap in the literature with a necessary story. It is the job of the entrepreneur to do the same. When surveying the landscape of businesses in the world, do not look only for success stories, look for silences.

You could spend a lifetime looking at what needs are being fulfilled by certain businesses, but it takes a more discerning and creative eye to look for what needs are going unmet, what desires are not being fulfilled, and then developing a product or service that meets those needs. By listening to these absences, you might discover just what the world has been waiting for. As the blue ocean strategy goes, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.

The imaginary divide that’s been put up between “creative” skills and “business” skills has stood for far too long, preventing countless enterprises from reaching their full creative potential. Entrepreneurs are told often to think “outside-the-box,” and it would do us well to make our first start the inside of a great book.

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