Being a Better Writer: The Importance of Experimentation

Hello readers, and welcome back for another Monday installment of Being a Better Writer! Confession time: This post was actually written early, as will be the next few week’s worth of Being a Better Writer posts, as I am going to be out of town for a few weeks in May. I’m getting a head start, in other words.

So, with little to no knowledge of the news that will be occurring at the time of post outside of “Hey, I’m planning on being away, Alpha Readers on Starforge get a blissful few weeks to rush ahead of me” there’s not too much reason to say anything other than “Let’s talk writing!”

So let’s talk writing! And the importance of experimenting. Hit that jump!

Okay, so first up, if this post sounds familiar in topic to things I’ve touched on over the last few months, well … you’re not wrong. I’ve grazed this topic multiple times in the last few months, each time as a subset to another topic, and it was high time this conversation got the post it deserved.

So … where do I start? It seems like, at first glance, this would be a pretty straightforward topic: You should experiment! End of story.

But that doesn’t really give anyone any sense of direction, and not all experimentation is—or should be—directionless. So perhaps then we should start with why you should experiment. What does it matter if you’re already writing quite well and have a solid grasp over what your audience wants? Why bother to expand outside of that? What’s to be gained?

And yes, there’s a logic there. There are plenty of authors who made their living doing one type of story, told over and over again, with the same style and approach, and never felt bothered to step outside their comfort zone because hey, it paid the bills! There’s also a degree of argument that lines up with the 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.”

If it pays the bills, and you’ve practiced it 10,000 times, then year, that one story type or genre can be a seriously well-crafted tale. And there’s an argument to be made that hey, if it pays the bills, why worry.

But there’s one tiny difference between that and what we’re talking about today, and it actually stems off that quote as well.

See, there’s nothing wrong with practicing one kick 10,000 times. You will get very good at it. But something I think Bruce Lee would agree with is that in order to know what kick to practice, you must understand which kick will serve your needs best. And that means trying out a variety of different styles, schools, and approaches.

Indeed, Bruce Lee did this, training in multiple schools of martial arts before branching out into his own to practice 10,000 times his one kick. Martial arts might feel like an odd comparison to writing, but the truth is that the same approach applies. This is why so many good advanced English courses (the ones that are worth your time, anyway) focus on a wide variety of styles, approaches to criticism, what the students must write, and a whole lot more. Basic English is being concerned with being able to get ideas across. But advanced English—IE, writing? It’s about conveying ideas in different manners and methods.

This is, as an offshoot, why it’s alarming or concerning when a teacher of English doubles down on one approach to literary theory, presentation, or criticism. It’s developing a focus without ever examining all the other approaches. Joining the first dojo one sees and practicing their kick 10,000 times even when it might be that that school of combat isn’t even known for providing good kicks. Sure, you might end up pretty good at it, but to make another analogy, then putting that practice into profit might be like buying a Lamborghini and trying to make it into a rally car. Yes, it’s possible, but it will be a very crappy rally car and handily lose despite all that money and effort to something as straightforward as a Subaru WRX.

Basically, this has been a roundabout way of saying what many of you already know: You should want a variety of experience with styles, criticism types, genre … Basically everything writing related you can shake your pen at. The more you get passable with, the more you’ll learn that you can take back and apply to whatever project you ultimately set your sights on.

Additionally, if you think that you’re good enough that you don’t need to try and experiment because you’re “good enough,” you’re more likely hobbling your skills—even if you’re pretty confident in your ability to tell one story type, it may be that you’re only confident of that because you don’t know what other styles of writing, storytelling, etc, can bring to your skillset. You’ll have no idea what sort of small things from other styles or genres might amplify and vastly improve your writing, because you’ll never have experienced that style or approach before.

In other words, no matter what, as a young writer you should always be looking to broaden your writing education horizons. Look at different styles of literary criticism, try your hand at different schools and styles of writing. Even as a creative writer, there is a lot to learn from different how different genres or even non-fiction handles explaining, approaching, or informing an audience about certain elements.

If you think otherwise, well … there’s no way to sugarcoat this. That’s incorrect. A writer might be good at one thing, but without having experienced or tried a lot of different things, their own knowledge of the pool they confine themselves to will be quite limited.

This is why Advanced English courses will often cover a range of material. In my early creative writing courses, even though I didn’t intend to be a poet, I had to learn and attempt different styles of poetry, and then turn those into workable, passable poetry. In that unit, I learned things that serve me well to this day. I also learned new things from the non-fiction essays that were required, and the fiction essays.

Ultimately, while I didn’t choose to practice 10,000 kicks worth of poetry, I did have to learn the all the basics of poetry and then apply that knowledge. Then, when I moved forward with the things I wanted to write about and began practicing my “10,000 kicks,” that was part of the knowledge pool I was able to use to fuel what I wanted to write about, even if it was only in small influences here and there.

Now, I’m not saying that if you want to be a writer you need to take an Advanced English course (though it’s not a bad idea). But you should attempt to vary your education in writing. Find different books about writing if you can’t take a class. Read a variety of different things and see what knowledge you can glean asking questions about how a piece of Slice-of-Life fiction is different from, say, Fantasy Adventure fiction. Or how they’re similar! Audit writing courses near you if that option is available. Then, practice what you’ve learned!

Okay, now I want to take a step forward in time, as so far with this post we’ve discussed new, young writers who are looking to grow. But what about experienced writers? What if they’re well on their way through those 10,000 kicks and have checked out the other schools? Are those writers able to say that they’ve done their time and call it good?

Well … A bit. But also no. Again, going back to Bruce Lee, I can guarantee you that he didn’t ignore what other practitioners of martial arts were up to even while he kept practicing. Likely he stopped by to see what new approaches they’d figured out and how their styles worked, and even if they could be applied to his own skill and knowledge.

Even for experienced authors, seeking to widen your knowledge is part of what makes someone an expert. Experienced authors will often note that they read other authors, genres, and even styles (such as non-fiction) as a way to see new approaches and techniques used by others. Experienced authors will often also admit to trying new genres, styles, or approaches in order to practice new techniques, hoping to expand their skills.

In other words, they continue to learn, and then they experiment!

But there’s another reason that experimentation is good that I wish to talk about, before we move into the latter half of this post. And this goes back to a post I wrote some time back that referenced the process of making taffy.

In that post, I noted that when creating taffy, the candy has to worked and kneaded from a lot of different angles to stretch it and develop the candy we all know and enjoy. Likewise, a mind needs to be stretched, expanded, pushed, pulled, and given room to grow and expand. If this action isn’t done with taffy, you don’t get taffy. You’ll get a candy yes … but one that is rock hard and shatters easily when put under pressure. Plus it won’t taste as good (there’s a reason we want some air in that mix).

A writer’s mind is the same way. If we aren’t constantly trying new things or stretching our skills, we may not end up quite as brittle as unpulled taffy, but we do have a very high chance of being inflexible as our small “set” of skills get set in stone. Then, when we do come across a situation where we might need skills we would have developed otherwise,. we might introduce “brittle cracks” to our story because we’ve never tried that before. These cracks can be patched, yes, but often it’s better for us to be able to prevent the fix from being needed in the first place.

Right, so writers old and new should always be keeping experimentation in mind. This raises a question that we have yet to answer with this post, however: How?

How does one experiment? Especially if there’s a schedule, a contract, or even something else they want to work on? How do they broaden their repertoire?

Well, for one, they do have to make time, first to learn, and then to slip that new knowledge into a “test” writing project. Shorts are really popular for this, and I know I’ve said this before in recent months. As noted, we’ve grazed off of this topic multiple times in the past.

But let’s talk about the execution. Finding time is a challenge for all authors, but you can often double it up with relaxation by reading something new or that you’ve not tried before (and as a bonus, when someone then bugs you to do something, you can reply that you’re working). It will dig into a writing time a little, or maybe be something you don’t quite want to relax with as much as say a movie or a game, but it’ll still be something that can accomplish both.

Second, you can then try new ideas or apply something you’ve gleaned from that to a new project. A small one. I know you’re thinking “short stories” because I’ve mentioned them each time we’ve bumped this subject. But yes, short stories work. Or side characters in a new project that let you dabble in something new without making it a major plot point.

Or maybe it’s just leisure. Sometimes writing is work, but I’ve been known to throw together a story simply because I had a fun idea I wanted to play with. Taffy pulling isn’t all pulling. Sometimes it’s relaxing the taffy, IE letting ourselves relax with something new. Which is good for mental health and for trying new things.

Ultimately, I can’t say what you might learn, or how you may improve. All I can say is that this sort of learning and experimentation will bring improvements, many small, and maybe some large. It’s not just healthy, but something that’s good for your writing talents to mature and grow.

So even if you know what genre you prefer to write and read, don’t neglect a bit of experimentation now and again. Keep your options open. Try new things.

Yes, it can be sticky, or even rough. Sometimes frustrating. I’ve definitely picked up a book or two to examine a different style and confirmed by the end that I had no desire to adopt any of those writing elements. But I’ve also seen writers do clever tricks with story, character, and presentation that have led my mind to say “Hey, if I combined that with this, I could …” Some of which have resulted in some great experimental works.

So experiment. Try new things. Branch out a little.

You’ll see the foundations of great things for yourself.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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