Write like the wind: writing tips from Haruki Murakami

The key to successful content from the pen of the Japanese maestro

A new year brings all sorts of goals and ambitions. Inevitably thoughts turn to waistline (how to decrease it), exercise (how to increase it) and work (how to improve it).

This trio of good intentions came together in a perfect gift-wrapped package for me this Christmas in the shape of Haruki Murakami’s book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which was published 10 years ago.

The author of works such as Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore is a much-acclaimed writer and translator. But this particular book isn’t fiction.

Instead, it’s a memoir on his relationship with running and how it has affected his writing over the 30-odd years since closing up his jazz bar in Tokyo and beginning his career as a professional writer.

As such, it’s an interesting proposition for any marketer with an eye on improving their written content. Here are a few things I gleaned.

Focus on the finish line

Murakami’s daily routine when writing a novel has become legendary. Get up at 4am and work for five to six hours. Run 10km or swim 1,500km (or both). Read a bit and listen to some music. Bed at 9pm.

So then, the gauntlet is raised!

In all seriousness, back in the world of content marketing our routine is not necessarily entirely in our hands. But the point of Murakami’s routine can be replicated. His task is clear – to keep the mind focused for a few key hours at a time.

The end goal for Murakami’s writing is a completed novel. Just like the end goal of his marathon running is to finish.

The end goal of a content marketer is what? To encourage the audience to read more? To provoke a phone call or email? To facilitate a sale?

Keep this finish line in sight and work towards it. A tacked-on CTA will look clumsy. A successful nudge in a particular direction needs to be earned by the content, not bolted on as an afterthought.

Repeat custom

Or in other words: “You can’t please everybody.”

When running his jazz bar, Murakami came upon the realisation that if one out of 10 customers enjoyed the place and came again, that was enough. He turned the same approach to writing – the one-in-10 repeaters buying his novels providing an excellent return.

For a content campaign to be successful, repeat business is essential. That sense of loyalty between business and audience is the hallmark of content marketing – and what lifts it beyond straightforward advertising.

Focus on exactly who it is you are aiming to reach. The intended audience should not be ‘as many people as possible’.

Use analytics to build an audience profile – think of a name, likes and dislikes, age, job role, as much as you can to help you decide what that audience will find most useful in their content consumption.

Repetition, repetition, repetition

For writing, as with running, there is no substitute for repetition.

Murakami cites a minute number of writers whose talent is so rare and explosive that this discipline isn’t needed. But for the vast majority, the more you do it, the better you get.

That might mean rewriting, scrapping or totally rethinking your content or content strategy – but in the fine-tuning lies the gold.

Don’t be afraid to change your mind or your angle to find the best path to audience engagement. It doesn’t have to be forever – tweak and A-B test until you get the results you want.

In running terms, the more you do it, the more you build the right muscles to get you from one place to the next in the quickest and most effective way.

Keep it simple

In the book, Murakami writes of giving a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He writes: “I find it more comfortable to use my far-from-perfect English than Japanese”, reasoning that speaking in his mother tongue means an overwhelming sea of “infinite possibilities”.

The limitations of his English allow for a more streamlined speech, he says. In other words, he believes that an audience is more likely to be engaged and entertained through direct and clear dialogue.

Write as you would speak isn’t always the case when writing fiction, but for content marketing it’s a clear guideline to follow.

Editorial inspiration isn’t a moment of explosive brilliance that arrives from nowhere. In Murakami’s words, “writers have to train themselves to increase their endurance… They’re sweating, digging out a hole at their feet with a shovel, when they run across a deep, secret water vein.”

Happy digging, one and all.

– Content Desk has featured lots of writing advice. You might want to check out tips from copywriters such as John Caples or Drayton Bird, maverick economist Deirdre McCloskey, advertising giant David Ogilvy, or even an obituary writer from The New York Times.

[Murakami image (c) Elena Seibert]

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