The Benefits of Writing in Different Styles and Formats
by David Edward Wagner
Many times I have been asked by fellow readers and writers alike, what are my thoughts on writing in various formats and styles, moving from screenplays to novels to short stories to poetry and song lyrics. From Drama to Comedy to Science Fiction or Action. Do I do it, should they do it, what are the upsides and downsides of literary promiscuousness?
My answers are always the same: yes I do, yes you should, and there are certainly positive and negative possibilities inherent in the act of authorial wantonness. In this blog entry, I will go into a bit more detail on these replies than I might go into during a typical friendly conversation.
The Idea of Writing in Different Formats and Styles
Generally, writers write many different things. There are novels and novellas, short stories, poems, prose, screenplays, flash fiction, stage plays, song lyrics, magazine articles, advertising text, journals, reviews, and blogs (to name but a portion). And while it is generally given that most writers do at least dabble in writing in multiple formats, as I can really think of no copy writers who have not at least started their first novel and very few novelists who have not banged out the occasional short story or poem, the question under consideration here is a bit more than just that.
I am asking if a writer should consciously, deliberately, and consistently, work in various formats, moving between novels and screenplays and short stories and blogs, poems, flash, and so on. I will answer yes, yes the writer should.
The Advantages of Writing in Multiple Formats
At the risk of being over-simplistic, I will be thorough.
Most basically, a writer puts words on paper (or, sure, digital word documents), and preferably puts as many down as possible in the course of their life. Those words are tied to the ideas in their head and those ideas are tied to the imagination and experiences they have built and nurtured. So, in a general and fundamental way, whatever you write, however you write it, only adds to your ability, only strengthens your capability and fortifies your capacity to produce pages. That is good.
Second, another basic thought, different ideas seem to call for different manifestations. The painter switches between color palates, canvas size, and artistic intention, the musician has ballads and rockers, and a multitude of instrumentation combinations and subject matters, so, in this vein, the writer has any number of literary delivery mechanisms available in their arsenal and why should anything be denied? Why should that burst of rhyming meter be discarded just because you are a ‘serious’ screenwriter? That idea perfect for a thousand word flash fiction piece be ignored, stretched thin, or watered down only because anything under fifty-thousand words is a waste of time and energy?
Nothing should be ignored, nothing should be passed aside simply because it is not something you have done before or are familiar with. Chances must be taken, paths must be followed, evolution must occur. Get the ideas out in the format and fashion they naturally want to be in and, worse case scenario, do not publish or publicly offer the results. Simply not writing them only limits experience and potential.
Third, and related to the second, a writer is a creative laborer, they do heavy and, dare I say, important work with their inspiration and time. In itself, I propose art contains intrinsic value and should be pursued simply for it’s a priori value, however, as we do inhabit a material, political, monetary-based social system, abstract, philosophical value does not pay the bills, buy the food, or put the roof over our heads.
Economic value must be added to your work, and in a general practical sense, value is added to products in a capital-based economy in several ways, most basically with the mechanisms of necessity, availability, and reputation. Bluntly and all-to-briefly, I will address these by saying, necessity in writing refers to originality of content uniqueness of voice: you are necessarily the only one who can do what you do, you have a monopoly on your personal voice. The only way to develop your one-of-a-kind style and literary voice is to write it out, work through your limitations, and develop the confidence to be free to say what you want to say in the exact way you want to say it.
Availability is basically what it says: you must get your work out there in as many ways and places as you want. People need to be able to find your art, see your art, stumble upon your art, hear about it, be introduced to it, and just generally have opportunities to notice it. Getting your name and work out to a wide variety of potential fans requires an equally broad realm of distribution and venue, something writing in multiple formats, styles, and genres can provide.
Last and most squirrely is the concept of reputation. As this is a ‘Writer to Writer’ blog and not a ‘Philosophy’ blog, I will do my best to keep this section short (please check out my ongoing philosophy blog for upcoming entries featuring the power of reputation). Here and now I will say this: reputation is an important component of social power and autonomy, and the opportunities afforded by a strong reputation are revolutionary for the artistic soul. To build reputation you must put out quality work at a consistent pace, you must be inspired, professional, distinctly creative, and you must be recognized as being these. Every word in every authorial method can only add to your total package and can only help you develop your artistic reputation.
However, always remember, only let the public see your best work, do not put anything and everything you write out to the available audiences. Keep writing, try different things, learn the various formats and styles, push yourself to try new things in new ways, work on the virtuosity of your profession and verse yourself in the possibilities of your own creative processes.
Everything is an opportunity to write better and more efficiently and should be on the table for potential use. In fact, some of the most important lessons I learned in writing my novels have come from studying and writing flash fiction, the sparseness and directness, the economy of words and focusing of force. Developing a visual-style of song writing informed my personal writing voice, preferring to develop a certain lyrical flow in my prose and many times writing to some unconscious beat in my head.
Writing screenplays, studying plot beats and describing visual events within the strict formatting restrictions of writing for film certainly has influenced my short stories, novellas, and novels, just as they in turn have affected my ability to plot and embolden my screenwriting.
And, lest we forget, many (nay, all) professional markets require you to include some combination and type of synopsis, cover letter, query, or the like, and writing a good letter or synopsis is an art in itself. The more you write them, the more adept you will become at writing them, and the more different variations on the same form you can produce is only helping you hone your skill.
Everything you get from mind onto paper helps season you and make you more valuable as an artist, so do it, Do not hesitate, write what you need to write how you need to write it and then offer the best of what you have. Be brave and creative, nurture your experience, become a master.
Plus, to be plain, its fun. I love books, I love movies, I love short stories and flash, and on top of everything else, I love to do things I love. So I do it, I write anything I think of in everyway I can, and since you asked, I can only hope that you love it too and I would encourage you to follow your heart, mind, and inspiration.
The Disadvantages of Writing in Various Styles and Formats
I will mention two problematic disadvantages of writing in various formats, styles, and genres.
The first is the problem of being the proverbial jack of all trades and master of none. The trouble inherent in this idiom speaks for itself. If you dabble in many things, you will never master one of them, just develop adequate adeptness at several things. Too this I say, there is an element of truth in there and there is an undeniable amount of sustained focus that must be given one thing to truly master it, but before all, before worrying about what you write, just remember that you write. You are mastering writing, artistic expression, and that is what is important. You are working on becoming the best writer you can be, what you write is a second matter entirely. Just write things, finish things, edit things. Each thing you write will come easier and better, push forward, stretch yourself, challenge yourself to learn the advantages and disadvantages of each thing, try to see things, get feedback, try.
It is eventual that you will settle into your sweet spot over time, finding those things that work best for you and carrying the lessons of the rest. Myself, I know I am a novelist and screenwriter now. And in between large projects, I have time for and need for banging out the occasional flash piece, short story, or song lyric. I take my time and edit them as I go, when they are cleaned up I take the best ones and submit them, getting my name out, making connections. Some I post on my blog.
Writing in different formats, genres and styles helps you master the one thing of being a writer, and in the course you develop ideas and experience from your jack of all trading, and you will sort out for yourself the focus your career will take.
Second, many people say: if I write a million things, I will never finish anything. I will have sloppy flash pieces and half done screenplays and half done novels and so on. This worry is amazingly real and widespread, yet I do not feel it has to do specifically with writing in various manners. Most writers do not finish things, from beginning to end to second, third, fourth, fifth and however many drafts. That is a hard truth.
Starting, sustaining, and finishing multiple projects at once requires dedication, organization, and an achievable plan and schedule. I know people who have never finished their one novel and I know people who knock out several screenplays and a novel each year. It’s not what, its how and the answer is, as stated previously, dedication, organization, and an achievable plan and schedule.
My own recent experience shall serve as an example.
I finished my second novel in October. Right after the push and stress of self-publishing and releasing it, I had a relatively blank slate ahead of me. During the in-between times of working full time only upon the novel for six months straight, I would jot down ideas for stories and screenplays. When the novel release was behind me, I just began working on the new ideas that seemed most compelling to me at the moment. Taking notes, plotting out, developing characters, writing opening scenes and first chapters, dancing around a bit until I naturally settled into a groove with five projects, two novels, two screenplays, and my blog. After three months of easily flowing with all of them, getting deeper into them in everyway, I realized, quite naturally, that it was time to focus down even more, really get serious and think about finishing things. So…
I thought of the time frame and my larger-life schedule and trimmed down my work projects as thus: One novel was projected at fifty-thousand words and would take five months to write at most, the other novel was projected for one hundred-thousand words and would take over a year to finish. Screenplays take the same amount of time to write regardless of their size, and for me they take about four to five months to complete on average, each one I write dropping the time it takes me to complete one. Regardless, I chose the screenplay I was most into at the moment and the shorter of the two novels, knowing that in in a handful of months I could have two completed projects and have two more waiting for me, already too far into to be discarded or ignored. While I am writing the long novel, I will do edits on the shorter one, eventually dancing between the two as the drafting gets deeper.
Things must be finished and finished properly if you are to be successful in any way, and that takes time. You have to use your time wisely, efficiently, and always with some planning. You are a writer, a self-employed, self-sustaining artistic entity, you are a business of one, and your reputation only comes by treating yourself as such. Put in the time, focus yourself within a larger overall goal, and get things done. All the way done.
This entry is long so allow me to briefly wrap up.
Write as often as you can. Write whatever you can. Finish things. Edit things.