THE BLOG

Why Writers Make Great Employees

05/15/2015 02:21 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2016
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When I finished my MA in English in 1982, I was completely unqualified to do anything but teach composition or Intro to Lit as an adjunct instructor at universities.

The business world was another country. I had no passport. I didn't know the language. And I was afraid the inhabitants were barbarians.

I was 24 and filled with the rhythms and beats of Shakespearean couplets, the slow-building song of Victorian sentences, the machine-gun burst of Hemingway and Carver.

I was writing a novel, sitting at a coffee shop for two hours each morning before teaching my two comp classes, designing a world, stopping and starting and re-thinking, unafraid to throw out an entire chapter-- a month of mornings-- and start again. I was a fearless solver of problems that existed to no one but me.

I didn't know that these problems were the same problems faced by all storytellers, and I didn't know that telling stories was the holy grail of every business. Of course, no one knew. Not in 1982. Now The Wall St. Journal, Forbes, Fast Company and The Harvard Business Review tell us that story telling is a crucial strategic business tool. That CEOs must become storytellers before they can become leaders. That content rules, which means brands must become storytellers and producers. Google "corporate storytelling coaches" and you get 34 million hits.

And yet every week struggling novelists, singer songwriters, poets and filmmakers come to my office looking for work in the creative department of our ad agency. The numbers are about to swell as a new crop of liberal arts majors toss their caps. They clearly aren't being courted by businesses. They feel as unqualified as I did 30 years ago before I lucked into a job as a copywriter.

The vast majority of corporate job listings, even in marketing and sales, still seek candidates with business or related degrees. And these corporations wonder why their people can't tell a story, can't create suspense, can't connect with consumers. It's largely a language problem. The people they hire majored in Power Point. Their minds move in a straight line from goal to action steps to next steps.

If I were an HR person, I'd attach this sentence to just about every entry-level job listing I had: Would love to interview struggling bloggers, unemployed journalists, starving playwrights, novelist-baristas.

Why? Because it's easier to teach business skills to a writer than it is to teach business majors how to tell stories.

And besides, writers already have many of the qualities and skills that are difficult to teach. For starters, they tend to be self-starters. They are used to facing the blank page. They don't need their boss to outline every step for them.

And they're not afraid of criticism or of being asked to start over. Writers know that writing is essentially a process of re-writing and re-thinking. Unlike some Millennials who seem to need a trophy every time they do something, writers--even young ones--are used to rejection. And that makes them easier to manage.

Constant rejection also brings other benefits. It makes people determined and permanently insecure-- two of the best qualities you can ask for in an employee. Insecurity breeds gratitude. It's the opposite of entitlement, which is one of the things employers constantly bemoan about their young charges.

Writers are also great problem solvers because every sentence, every paragraph, every story is a constantly shifting puzzle. Change one word, and the whole thing swivels and turns. Writing is a process of re-ordering and re-structuring. Writers know from constant practice that things don't have to be the way they are. And that's a necessary condition for innovation, another holy grail of business.

Plus writers are thinkers. And while not all thinkers are strategists, all strategists are thinkers. So hiring writers increases the odds that your organization will have more strategic thinkers.

And finally in this defense of writers, I offer Exhibit A: the writer as BS Detector. Writing is a lonely activity. Writers tend to be outsiders, used to figuring things out alone, to speaking their minds. And corporations need people like this, people who aren't easily influenced by committees and groupthink. People who can stand up without fanfare and say, "Hey that doesn't make sense." Of course, you don't have to be a writer to do that and not every writer will, but the chances increase as you bring in more outsiders.

Fortunately, BS detectors are available at a great price, a fraction of what a newly minted MBA will cost you. If I were you, I'd hire a couple today.