Being a Better Writer: Diversifying Your Writing

Welcome back readers! Yes, I decided to bump Monday’s usual Being a Better Writer post to Tuesday on account of Monday being the federal holiday in a number of places, including where I was. That, and it was a bit nice to have a break day.

And you know what? We’re going to dive right in. There’s not much to note news-wise save the sale being over (and a successful sale it was too!) so instead we’re just going to get right to the meat of things today, and as well it’s Tuesday, which is a day that already allows me a bit less time than normal to write with (and what I have today I really want to dive into Starforge with).

So, today’s topic is from Topic List #18, and it’s a reader-requested topic! Today, we’re going to talk about diversifying your writing.

And right away, I need to clarify something. In the context of the original question, and what we’ll be talking about today, this post will be about widening your writing range through genres and experimentation. Not on widening the range of characters, culture, or ethnicities on display in your writing. That’s another topic (which is, it should be noted, also on Topic List #18 and therefore coming).

That said, if you were expecting the latter and are unhappy that the former is the immediate topic, I would encourage you to read on anyway. Today’s topic is useful for all levels of writers, and there may yet be something you glean from it.

So hit the jump, and let’s talk about diversifying your writing.

All right, so let’s start with the most pressing question that comes to some writers’ (and even authors’) minds: Why should one diversify their writing? If one’s writing is serviceable, why bother pushing outside of that skill set? It pays the bills, or delivers stories that people like. Why add additional tools to a writer’s toolbox that only needs a screwdriver?

Well, I ask in return the following question: What books have been criticized for being “the same book, just with different characters as the previous books?” Do any come to mind? Have you read a sequel or even another book that’s supposed to be independent from a prior book, but really just feels like the same book?

I know I have. I’ve read books that are supposed to be wholly independent from the authors other offerings, but instead feel like “X but in [insert other genre here].” Or worse, they feel like the prior books until they reach the point where they’re supposed to shift genres or into something outside the creator’s usual playground … and then they fall apart.

In other words, diversifying the kind of writing you can do is extremely useful because it widens your skill set. To use an analogy, being a writer is a bit like being a carpenter. A carpenter works with wood, and a writer works with words. But inside that discipline, there’s an extremely wide range to carry out. A carpenter can work with framing, for doors and windows. Or they can work with cabinetry (and indeed there are carpenters that specialize and focus on just this). They can work with furniture, making chairs and tables.

And here’s the thing, they can work with one of those things and make what they do very specialized (and some do) but at the cost of not being able to do those other jobs well, or even at all. In fact, there are jokes and stories that go around to the tune of “when all you have is a hammer” about carpenters (and folks in other similar jobs) that have hyperspecialized into a narrow range of work being short on cash and taking jobs outside of their range, only to deliver something truly strange as they take what works for something like “cabinets” and scale and size it for something like “windows” … when those who have worked with windows know that there’s an easier and simpler way.

More to the topic at hand, I’ve seen this happen with writing firsthand. I recall on person who held themselves as a sort of “supreme editor and dispenser of writing knowledge” online who absolutely blew their top into a slathering fit when it was pointed out to them that a lot of their “editing advice” was incorrect because the only actual writing education they’d had was a journalism editing course. Journalism editing being to different standards then fiction on account of the market, this individual was editing and critiquing other’s works as if they were going to be printed in a newspaper (which led to different, and for fiction incorrect, possessives, formatting, and other issues).

Because their range and education was limited to that one approach and lacked any sort of diversification, they were constantly giving out incorrect advice, while having such a high opinion of themselves that when this was brought to their attention they threw a colossal internet tantrum, complete with all caps responses, cursing, and even resorting to calling on their immediate friend group to embark on a spree of internet bullying and harassment.

Their range was limited, but they believed it otherwise, and combined with their ego, led to them making utter fools of themselves.

Now, that’s definitely an occurrence that’s on the far end of the spectrum of how much pigeonholing one’s skills can harm, but it is an illustration of how having a writing range that isn’t broad or diverse can be detrimental. It’s why when Being a Better Writer was only a year or so old, I frequently declined some commonly requested writing topics, such as comedy and romance: I didn’t consider my range in those areas experienced enough to offer advice. As the years have gone by and I’ve widened and diversified my own writing range in multiple ways, I later have revisited those topics that were once outside of my purview, but I had since added to my growing stable of skills.

Point being that just because you can write one thing well, doesn’t mean you’ll be able to write another thing well. Writing is vast in its range and discipline. Writing horror fiction requires a different set of skills from writing action fiction, or from writing a journalistic piece, or an academic paper.

Now, a quick aside before we move on. This doesn’t mean that you can’t learn to do one thing and do that one thing extremely well. There’s the old Bruce Lee quote of “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times,” which in writing can hold pretty true. There are writers who have, for one reason or another, dedicated themselves to telling one kind of story, one genre or setup, and done so over and over again polishing it with each pass.

But not all of us are like that. There are some that are content to do the same story day in and day out, but not all of us have that “freedom” (so said because usually writers that do this have that one story noticed early on, so they can continue to exist off of that “story” for a long period of time, while most will not have this luxury). That, and a lot of us do want to range out a bit and stretch our muscles.

So if that’s the why, then what’s the how?

Actually, the first answer in this might surprise you. I’d suggest the best step in this process is being humble enough to realize you need to diversify your skillset.

I know. It sounds weird. But if you’re not humble enough to know that diversification is needed, you’ll never be open to diversifying. Even if you’re not arrogant about it, not being humble enough to learn or ask results in the above example of someone who does cabinets coming at a windowsill and overcomplicating a relatively simple job when it wasn’t needed.

So then, I say, the first step to diversifying your writing is being aware and admissive that something lies outside of your particular skill set. Knowing your own writing enough to know where it can be weak with a particular element, approach, or even genre. For some, this is really hard to do. For others, it’s almost too easy (see the idea of being your own worst critic).

Ideally, I think, we shouldn’t strive to make it easy or hard. We should just make it something that is. Be aware of our own writing. Don’t be dismissive of our faults, but don’t delve on them to our own ruin. Besides, not having experience in something like “romance” or “horror” isn’t something we should massively criticize ourselves for unless we’ve backed ourselves into a corner of needing that tool and not being able to procure it (and even then, I’d hope that the “corner” wasn’t that bad). Sure, if a carpenter shows up a job without their level or tape measure and claims that those tools “aren’t real tools” then there’s going to be concern. But if they show up and say “Oh, I forgot this tool, I’ll be right back” or “Hmmm … this job requires this tool, let me go acquire it” that’s a scenario where they’re willing to correct a course.

Okay, but what if someone is aware. They’ve never written a love story, for example, and would like to write one. Well, the next step I would suggest is to read the kind of stuff you’d like to write. Not just one book, from one author, but a variety of books from a wide range of authors. And either as you do so, or in hindsight if you really get sucked in, ask yourself what worked, what you enjoyed, and what didn’t work. Look for things that are similar to what you have done, or written, in style or approach. Look at the uses of prose or language. Look at how characters are presented or on display.

Again, read different works from different authors. Compare them. What do they do that’s similar. What familiar story elements, concepts, approaches, or even phrases jump out at you as sharing the same DNA? What do they do that’s different?

Also, don’t forget your own strengths and weaknesses. What do you see across this genre or style that lends itself readily to what you can already do? What do you see that seems difficult? The more you can identify, the more you can press yourself to grow, yes, but also the more you can put your already existing tools and skills to use doing well. It may be that something you already are quite skilled at can be easily adapted to one aspect of this new genre with a little bit of work, or maybe none at all.

In other words, as you explore these other genres, you’ll find areas where you may need to improve, yes, but also areas where you can apply what you already know in a new way, and gain thereby.

Now, one more thing about this. Some may ask “But won’t I end up just mimicking others?” Well, the correct answer is “No.” That’s not the goal here. The aim isn’t to mimic, but to learn what makes a genre or type of writing different across a range of examples, then take those common elements and put forth effort into adding them to your own endeavors in that genre or type.

Now, a quick aside before we move from this, an option for learning in this manner is to take something like a writing class or course on the subject(s) you’re interested in. This can be a great way to expose yourself to a wide range of material inside said subject, as well as gain access to lectures talking about what makes up that subject, and even gain some extra focus practicing writing it (as well as feedback). Which is really just a jump to the last step …

… which is practical and practiced application! You probably knew this was coming, but the once you’ve widened your reading aperture, picked out and determined what and how you want to gain … Well, all there is left to do is practice!

That’s right, get out your pen, your pencil, your keyboard, whatever, and experiment! Take that knowledge you’ve gained, that wider lens you want to develop, and start using it! Give it a shot! Put it into practice and see what happens!

You never know what might come of it. One Drink, my first published book, was actually written in this kind of experiment, while I was working on writing first-person PoV stories. It was the result of me reading, learning, and writing first-person PoVs.

So yes, the last step is, fittingly enough, what is repeated at the end of every Being a Better Writer post: To get writing. After stuffing our minds full of knowledge, putting that knowledge into use is the final step. We write, we check over, we make improvements, and we polish.

And it’s not a easy path, sometimes. Those that see One Drink won’t see the dozens of short, first-person PoV stories that preceded it where I figured out what worked and what didn’t, what suited my style and what didn’t, what mistakes I was making, etc.

But that’s the last step. Take everything you’ve learned and studied, and work at putting it into practice.

So good luck.

Now get writing.

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