What you can learn from Keats
A quick look at one of John Keats’ best-loved works shows how much there is for business writers to learn from poetry.
We’re publishing this in autumn, so it seems fitting to look at the famous opening lines of Keats’ poem Ode to Autumn:
“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!<br/> Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;”
In a dozen words, Keats conjures up not just what autumn is or what it looks like, but how it feels. And he does so using metaphors that entice you to explore his ideas.
This makes the writing not only beautiful, but very efficient. By the end of the first line, you have the idea that autumn is a season where things have matured to abundance. Thanks to his choice of the word ‘fruitfulness’ to convey this, you are also left with an image of mist filling an orchard where the fruit hangs ready to harvest (or at least, that’s what I see when I read it).
By the end of the second line, you know that this abundance comes from the sun. And because the sun is described as ‘maturing’, you’re also left with the sense that the two will soon go their separate ways. Autumn will give way to winter. And the sun will grow weak and lose its strength until spring.
This is a far cry from much of the business writing around today, which would probably write Ode to Autumn (perhaps renamed to something like In Praise of Autumn’s Capabilities) along these lines:
“Autumn leads the seasons in both the provision of mist and in its productive capacity.<br/> It has a close working relationship with the sun, whose warmth decreases at this time of year.”
This version isn’t quite so engaging, is it? It’s wordy. It reaches for tired clichés such as ‘leading’ and ‘close working relationship’. And it’s also literal – there’s not a metaphor or simile in sight.
We’ve posted before about the power of metaphors in web writing, but they’re useful in all kinds of writing. They are the wand of linguistic magic. They take the words from the page and create a picture in your readers’ minds. But like all magic wands, metaphors should be used wisely.
A metaphor has a shorter shelf-life than an X-Factor winner – it soon loses its sparkle and becomes a cliché. The trick is to avoid secondhand metaphors, always try to think of your own. Your writing will be a lot more engaging for it.