StoryStudio Chicago Words for WorkStoryStudio Chicago Words for Work
Can you write like a 4th grader?

by Jill Pollack

Part I

My first book tour I played to full houses. Well, not really houses, more like 4th grade classrooms full of 10-year-olds who had no idea who was coming to speak to them that day. I’d stand out in the hallway listening to the teacher shush the kids, reminding them to be polite and pay attention. And then it was showtime; I was ushered in like a celebrity but I knew I looked just how I felt, like a writer who thinks her work is never really finished.

Most of these kids considered themselves not just writers, but authors. They were less interested in my book’s subject matter than in telling me what they had written about that morning. They were full of stories and excitement and pride. Each one wanted to read their piece to me. I know now that those kids have it all over us adults when it comes to having confidence about our storytelling. No one had yet told them “it would never happen that way” or that their writing wasn’t concise and clear.

The book I had written and was there to promote was about Shirley Chisholm, one of our most amazing members of Congress. A black woman who ran for president in 1972, Chisholm didn’t do very well in the primary but she succeeded in changing the national conversation and getting a new voice and new ideas out to the public. Her slogan was Fighting Shirley Chisholm—Unbought and Unbossed and she was known for always moving forward with humor and good will.

That’s how I feel trying to convince people that yes, you can become a better writer and no, writing at work doesn’t have to feel like a misery. It should feel like fourth grade.

Let’s play this game: I say “Good Business Writing” and you:

  • Laugh and say there is no such thing
  • Bend over and clutch your stomach in pain
  • Leave the room to finish those emails you just remembered
  • Cross your arms, lean back, and say, “Convince me”

Story Mode has a vast and always-growing collection of integrative solutions that align and offer the synergy with your goals to be push-through technologies.

Kidding! We would never write this sentence. It doesn’t mean anything. But this kind of language keeps us in business as we travel the country (and beyond) to guide people back to their own creativity, and with a few bits of story crafting wisdom, help them gain the confidence to use plain language to get their work done.

Can you learn how to be a better writer? Definitely.

When I was running StoryStudio Chicago’s creative writing school, a week wouldn’t go by when someone didn’t challenge me that writing can’t be taught. You’re either good at it or not, they would say.

Writing, like breathing, is something we know how to do and do it every day over and over again without really thinking about it.

But, like breathing, we can always learn to write better. (See: “Jill can’t sit still to meditate” entry in the Things We Wish We Could Do encyclopedia.)

When children are having trouble learning to write, it’s typically not because they are at a loss for words. It’s usually because they can’t see the big picture yet, how elements relate to each other. So often, we find ourselves working with professionals who are so flummoxed over making their words sound businessy and important, or feel that they are writing in a vacuum without all the information they need, that they don’t stop to think about what it is they are actually trying to say. There is a lot of pressure to sound important and official.

So what?

In the heat of the moment, when it’s 4:45pm and that proposal has to be out the door by end of business day, you don’t really care about pondering the aesthetics of good writing; you just want to get it done.

Even in this rush, you still can make time to think about three questions to help you find the story faster. Focus first on The Who, Their What, and Your Why.

  • Who is your audience? What do you know about them.
  • What do they care about? What do they need to get from your communication?
  • Why are you spending time on this? What do you need? Do you have to persuade someone to take an action?

How We Learn To Write

For most of us, our memories of grade school and junior high are filled with agonizing moments of seeing red all over our school term papers. When I got to college, after having attended a well-funded suburban high school, I didn’t really know grammar or punctuation. I had gotten by on my mom’s advice to “put a comma every couple inches.” (Which frankly, worked pretty well.)

Why were my teachers willing to overlook what must have been atrocious grammar? Looking back, I think it was because I have always been interested in ideas and words and reading.

It’s this triumvirate that helps us to be good storytellers. But wait, I thought we were talking about business writing not storytelling?!

At Story Mode, we don’t make the distinction. In fact, we know that if you can tell a story (and every single one of us can!), then you can become a confident and persuasive business writer. After learning a few strategies from the world of creative writing, you can learn to write better and faster.

Take A Class; Learn to Write Better

If you’re in the Chicago area, or passing through, come to our Business Writing FUNdamentals class. You can bring a real-time project to work on and put into practice the writing and storytelling strategies we teach.

What’s Jill reading?

There’s nothing I like better than talking about a good book…or getting you interested in a book I think you must read. Right now, I’m obsessed with learning about neuroscience and if you read Part II of this post (to be published next week), you’ll become obsessed too.

Let me know what you’re reading by sharing what’s on your bedside table in the comments. Here’s what’s keeping me up at night:

Jill Pollack
About Jill Pollack
 Jill Pollack is Chief Story Wrangler of StoryStudio Chicago, where she founded a creative writing school and the Words for Work business writing training. She now co-leads the Story Mode program with Beth Nyland, working with company teams and business people who are really artists in their hearts to become great storytellers, presenters, and creatives. She was a co-founder of the content marketing conference, Content Jam in Chicago, IL, and is a frequent podcast guest and speaker on the power of stories in our personal and professional lives.
Can you write like a 4th grader?
Can You Write Like a Fourth Grader?