How to Use Lateral Thinking to Improve Your Writing

How to Use Lateral Thinking to Improve Your Writing

Lateral thinking is as easy as making a cup of coffee. Instant coffee, of course.

At this point, you may well be visualising the process in your mind. You put the kettle on to boil, reach for a cup, take the lid off the jar of coffee, grab the milk and a spoon. Because we all know how to make instant coffee, right?

Of course, there’s nothing to it, is there? A spoon of coffee, possibly sugar, usually milk, boiling water and stir. And that’s about it.

Or is it? Not if you apply a little lateral thinking.

Coffee, But Not As You Know It

Many years ago I worked in a large organisation where attending meetings were a regular occurrence.

One such meeting, held by a very senior leader and a small number of colleagues, myself included, started with an invitation into the staff kitchen for coffee.

We stood huddled together, while our senior colleague handed out cups. So far, so good.

Then, we were instructed on how the process was going to play out. A comment was made, something like, “This is how we make our coffee.” Spoken as though it were the most natural statement in the world.

The process began. When the kettle was boiled our cups were filled with clear boiling water. At this point, we glanced at each other, with slightly raised eyebrows.

But, it was a senior colleague, so we went with the flow.

Next came a carton of milk. It was passed around, each of us adding some to our boiled water. We looked down at our mugs, full of unappetising, cloudy liquid.

We were asked if anyone took sugar and a couple of us did. So, the bag of sugar was produced and whoever wanted it, added that.

Finally, the jar of coffee appeared. We all relaxed slightly, the tenseness falling from our shoulders. The jar was passed along, each of us taking a generous spoonful.

It Is Coffee, After All!

As we stirred the brown granules into the milky water, we couldn’t help but smile at the familiar drink now forming in front of our eyes.

A couple of us took tentative sips and proclaimed that it tasted fine. The senior colleague seemed oblivious to our reactions.

You have to ask yourself, why wouldn’t the drink taste fine? All the component ingredients were there. They’d just been assembled in a different order.

Let’s face it, I’d never seen coffee made that way before and never have since. But, that said, the finished product was as it should be. A decent cup of coffee.

None of us dared ask why we’d been instructed to make a simple thing like that, in such an unusual way.

A Lesson in Lateral Thinking

Of course, when the meeting had finished we discussed the coffee-making procedure in hushed voices.

Was there an underlying purpose to the slightly bizarre ritual, we wondered? A test, perhaps?

Looking back, I don’t think there was. Maybe it was just that particular colleague’s quirky nature. I’m sure anyone who’s ever worked in a large organisation can recall someone who was known for being a bit eccentric at times.

Now, when I think about the coffee-making, I have to admit it was a pretty good lesson in lateral thinking. Even if it wasn’t intended to be.

It demonstrated perfectly how even the most tried and tested way of doing something can be mixed up to produce an equally successful outcome.

For writers, this way of thinking probably comes quite naturally. It’s certainly useful when it comes to fiction writing. No-one wants to read a story where they guess, half-way through, what the outcome will be.

Thinking outside the box is also one of the most valuable skills of a copywriter. It’s how we come up with those big ideas. And putting the same old message across in a new and exciting way.

Lateral Thinking Techniques

The term lateral thinking first became popular in 1967, when Edward de Bono started writing books on the subject.

He’s written 57 books in all, amongst them the best seller, Lateral Thinking: A Textbook of Creativity.

There are lots of lateral thinking techniques and exercises you can try, to give your brain a workout and improve your creative writing skills.

I particularly like brain-storming and mind-mapping to unleash a flow of creative ideas.

Both of these techniques use the right brain and the left logical side. You can tap into the creative, intuitive part of your mind to get a more innovative result.

This type of exercise encourages you to ‘let go’ and it’s then the full force of creativity can kick in. It’s times like that when a brilliant off the wall idea can suddenly pop into your head.

When you’re next stuck for an idea, or trying to think of a different way to say something, think of the cup of coffee. Try approaching the idea from a different angle. You may surprise yourself!

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