Everyone makes mistakes—even writers—but that's OK because each mistake is a great learning opportunity. The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them early in the process. Note: The mistakes in this series aren't focused on grammar rules, though we offer help in that area as well.
Rather, we're looking at bigger picture mistakes and mishaps, including the error of using too much exposition, neglecting research, or researching too much. This week's writing mistake writers make is dismissing other genres.
Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Dismissing Other Genres
When I was a kid, I was kind of obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe. I was particularly fascinated by how he was able to write poetry and fiction, and both were equally as captivating.
So, when I first started with my own creative work, I wrote a lot of poetry. Most of it was terrible. But I had so much fun with it, and it was a nice break between writing longer works.
It wasn’t until I was getting my B.A. that I had the opportunity to really study the mechanics of poetry. In class, we learned a lot of standard poetic forms, wrote in those forms, and then were encouraged to take those poems and tweak them. I learned so much about word choice, dramatic tension, and especially how to engage someone’s senses from writing poetry. All of those skills strengthened my fiction writing.
I also did a fair bit of acting in high school and dabbled with acting in college. There was something about writing and performing monologues that I adored, and I was even able to take a literature class that focused on stage plays. I’d always loved writing dialogue, but when you’re reading script after script and discussing with others how they interpret a character based solely on dialogue and a few stage directions, it can be very eye-opening. For me, it allowed me to be more subtle with my fiction characters’ voices and helped me to include more than just speech to flesh out a character. Even small details like a character calmly setting down their beer bottle before getting up to join in on a bar fight can tell the reader so much about who that character is.
All this to say that I wouldn’t be the fiction writer I am today if I had only focused on reading and studying fiction. Even if you don’t have the opportunity to take classes or go to conferences to learn about different genres, there are plenty of ways you can branch out on your reading and open your mind to what you could be missing.
Mistake Fix: Branch Out!
When you’re looking to branch out from your comfort zone, it can be hard to find material at first. Then, when you do find the material, how can you translate it into something that will help you with your projects?
Here are some tips and tricks to get you started.
If you’re not used to reading poetry, it can be intimidating to figure out where to start. A site like Goodreads might be a good option for you! You’ll be able to browse user-generated book lists, see upcoming publications, and even read community reviews to figure out what books will be the most interesting for you.
Once you start reading poetry, I recommend keeping notes as you read. What images are particularly striking to you? What words or phrases make them stand out? How does the poem engage your senses? How does it make you feel?
If you want to get further into your study, writer and editor Matthew Daddona has an excellent article about creating tension, our Senior Editor and resident poetry expert Robert Lee Brewer takes a look at what makes a good poem, and Robert’s e-guide The Complete Guide of Poetic Forms: 100+ Poetic Form Definitions and Examples for Poets is for sale in our WD shop.
Again, sites like Goodreads are a good way for you to see what others are reading and what they’re saying about what they’ve read.
When you read a nonfiction book, think about how the author makes a connection between the subject and the reader. Do they ask the reader to put themselves in a situation? What kind of language do they use when discussing difficult subject matter? Do they use humor at all? What do you like about how the author has approached the subject? Was there anything that alienated you?
And to further your study, here are just a few articles here on the site you can check out:
- “Memoir as Detective Novel” by Lilly Dancyger
- “A Few Tips for Writing Personal Essays” by Robert Lee Brewer
- “25 Ways Reflective Writing Can Help You Grow as a Writer (And as a Person)” by Jeanne Baker Guy
Finally, scripts are another genre that I always encourage people to explore. As an actor, I got used to relying on Dramatists Play Service (DPS) to get scripts that I was most interested in. Actor copies are pretty cheap and unless you’re producing and performing the play, you don’t need to pay for performance rights. It’s also where I got one of my favorite plays of all time, The Curious Savage. While a comedy, it taught me a lot about balancing humor and pain in the same scene. But you can find plays of all lengths, genres, and cast sizes.
As you read scripts, try and visualize the scene as much as possible. Analyze the dialogue and stage directions; what do they tell you about the characters? How is setting used to further the plot? How are props used to flesh out the scene? Is there something specific about the way the characters interact that give you insight into their relationships? And how does the scene remain balanced if there are a lot of characters speaking in the same scene?
And, of course, if you want to view things through the lens of a script writer, don’t forget to check out ScriptMag.com! You’ll see interviews from a lot of screenwriters and directors, as well as articles about craft.