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Writing Lessons from the Masters

Poets, playwrights, and especially songwriters do it every day: convey meaning and stir emotion in just a few words.

Some of my favorite examples:

A Moon for the Misbegotten

With just those 5 words – simply the title of a play – Eugene O’Neill makes me think about sad-sack misfortunates reaching for a dream.

Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night
You ain’t a beauty but hey you’re all right

The Springsteen classic Thunder Road is all about hope, possibility, and escape even for those who are past the bright promise of youth.

So … how do the masters do it, and how can we learn from them?

  • Strip out the extraneous. We don’t need to know everything about the characters in a Springsteen song to be able to connect with them, understand their plight, cheer their actions, and believe in their future. In fact, when we say too much, we distract attention from what’s really important.
  • Choose the right words—specific words. Just think if O’Neill had written A Moon for the Unfortunate. It doesn’t have the same resonance nor meaning.
  • Tell a story. Stories are inherently interesting, so that’s a good start! And they are microcosms that convey greater meaning than just that one specific tale.
  • Reach a conclusion. A story with no resolution is unsatisfying. While happy endings are popular, even a tragic outcome helps us understand the situation and the characters.

The kind of writing that I do—writing resumes, LinkedIn profiles, cover letters, biographies—is far removed from poetry. But it’s important writing because it helps communicate what’s valuable about my clients in a way that is relevant to their readers. So while I don’t claim to be a Springsteen nor an O’Neill, I do take pride in choosing the right words and telling meaningful stories.

And I’m always looking for inspiration to help me be a better writer! In addition to songs, poems, and plays, I find it in the business world—in advertising copy, slogans, branding statements—anywhere that good writers have strung together just the right words to inspire meaning and emotion.

Imagination at work.
Just do it.
Diamonds are forever.

What words, stories, songs, and poems—and what writers—inspire you?

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