business writing

The sonnet: a powerful tool for the business writer

Post #16: Reflections from a Dark Angels weekend in Gloucestershire

I’m afraid the project management blog’s just going to have to wait… Last weekend, I was walking out one midsummer morning, following the footsteps of Laurie Lee, who, more than 80 years ago, set out from his home in Slad, Gloucestershire, to walk across Spain. I was accompanied on my journey by around 30 other Dark Angels, and, while the first 45 minutes were a literal following as we left Slad (refreshed at the delightful Woolpack Inn), it was more a metaphorical following as together we spent the weekend exploring the use, the meaning and the power of words.

On my way home on the London train on Monday morning, I was communing with fellow angel and annual report writer Tim Rich, who had the brilliant idea that I should use one of the writing forms we’d been introduced to during the weekend, the Native American Sonnet, as the brief for this blog. It’s a pretty loose form – it requires you to write in  14 stanzas, although a stanza can be anything from a couple of words to a whole paragraph. Its power lies in the numbering of each thought, 1 to 14, which, when heard, with a pause between each number, gives the writing a rhythm, an energy and an inevitability that is compelling to the listener.

Isn’t this blog supposed to be about business writing? Yes it is – and, while much of what we wrote last weekend was not strictly business writing, this sonnet form is an immensely valuable tool for the business writer. Good writing can only start with careful thought. But how do you marshal your thoughts into something that can become a coherent argument, or an engaging story? Try this sonnet form, and you may surprise yourself. Spend some time thinking about the subject, then start by simply writing ‘1’. And let your mind take over.

At the bottom is the link to the original sonnet that was our inspiration – Sherman Alexie’s Sonnet with Bird.

I give you Sonnet without Strategy.

1. Where do I start? Writing a chapter about writing annual reports in a book – the book to end all books – about business writing, by Dark Angels, who are all about making business writing more human. Gosh. What a lot of writing in just one sentence. 2. It’s interesting to see, though, how Dark Angels, which started when the business copywriter’s job was just to produce words and everyone brought notebooks and pencils to a DA course, has evolved alongside business copywriting. 3. A brilliant new Dark Angels exercise, which I tried out at the ‘senior’ (experience, not age, please) angels’ retreat in Gloucestershire last weekend, is to take a minimum of four photos and write a story around them. All in 30 minutes, by the way. It’s easy to see where this has come from – because business writing is now as much about social media as it is about advertising, or corporate websites, or annual reports; as much about writing for the moment, as it is about carefully crafted and thought-through copy that lasts for months or even years. 4. There’s a place for both though. 5. There’s a place for both new and old. Sometimes it’s good to find new things. Do new things. Be new things. But sometimes the old things endure for a reason, because they are timeless and their message is as relevant and fresh today as it ever was. 6. Jamie wrote a new song for our Dark Angels weekend, but, excellent as it was, it didn’t quite hit the mark – it didn’t evoke the same collective spirit as the original. 7. We sang the original and its power was unmistakeable. 8. Unmistakeable, unshakeable. But unshakeable is exactly what I wasn’t when the words resounded, echoing back across a decade to when we stood in a similar circle and called on the power of words. 9. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” So goes the playground rhyme, the defiant rejoinder of the taunted to the tormentor. But so untrue. It was always the words that hurt the most. But it is also words that inspire the most, that have the power to change a mood, to lift a soul, to capture a heart. 10. Not the Furniture Game is a poem by Simon Armitage that builds up a picture of the poet Ted Hughes by describing each part of his body in a series of increasingly insightful metaphors. There is a Dark Angels exercise based on this poem in which we think of a person and describe him or her in metaphor – ‘he/she is…’ (or ‘you are…’, if you’re going for the riskier version, addressed to the person sitting next to you) followed by a colour, an object, a time of day and so forth. 11. The beauty of the exercise lies in allowing the truth of what you feel for that person, what you believe about him or her, to be revealed in words. 12. One of our founders, ‘archangel’ John Simmons, is retiring this year. Our parting gift to him on the Sunday evening was a version of Not the Furniture Game. We each contributed a sentence, reflecting on what John had given and had meant to each of us. “And his heart is a home with a cavernous hearth, space for one, space for all”, I wrote. 13. But one line was missing. 14. “You are blue-black, revealed only by your own shadow.”

Read Sonnet with Bird by Sherman Alexie, reproduced by my fellow Dark Angel, Richard Pelletier, on his blog.

And read Not the Furniture Game by Simon Armitage.

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