While there is certainly value in immersing yourself in the study of a particular style or genre of writing, as the old saying goes,
Jack of all trades, master of none,
though oftentimes better than master of one.
The second half of this couplet rings true especially for writers. As someone who has presented on a multi-genre pedagogical approach to writing at local and national writing conferences such as those held by the Florida College English Association and the Association for Writers & Writing Programs, I’d like to share how you may benefit from studying and composing in “all trades.”
You’ll best set yourself up for success if you’re able to devote a chunk of your time being exposed to literature in a variety of genres and mediums. While pursuing my MFA at UCF, I was especially lucky to be able to study in my given track (fiction), and also learn from expert faculty (and/or self study) in the fields of creative nonfiction, screenwriting, and comics. In addition, I was able to take a composition theory course. Not only did this intensive course qualify me to teach First Year Composition courses from a Writing Across the Curriculum (or Writing in the Industry) perspective, it also granted me a repertoire of writing theory and studies which I use every day in my full-time teaching job as well as in cultivating my creative writing career. To round out my graduate school experience, I frequently gave my best friend in the program a second pair of eyes on her poetry manuscript, furthering my studies in attaining a deep and broad understanding of the various craft necessities of different creative writing genres.
The key to utilizing “all trades” lies in combining lessons and theories from writing studies, creative writing, and multimodal composition in order to best meet the needs of your writing projects. The more you know about different styles and genres of writing, the more diversified your writing toolbox can become. What you learn writing in one medium carries over into others, and you’ll have more flexibility to tell your story in the most effective manner due to your understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of each medium of storytelling.
For instance, when studying poetry, you may learn how to write very pretty sentences, focusing on crafting language phrase by phrase and applying various literary techniques essential to other types of writing. The dense structure and attention to language at the sentence level can strengthen the conciseness needed for screenwriting, deepen the literary quality of prose, and teach you about using white space for comics or screenwriting. While studying prose, what you learn about juggling exposition and scene, juxtaposing dialogue and setting for character development, and overall structure can carry over into writing poetry or scripts, which essentially function as prose distilled.
For writing scripts, specific, concise descriptions, and punchy dialogue are essential, but so are considerations for the strengths and limitations of the medium the script is written for. Podcasts only need consideration for narration and sound effects/background music, while film typically includes the additional complexity of visual elements on the screen, such as actors, setting, on-screen text, and animations/special effects. Scripting for games may be the most difficult of all, necessitating all of the above plus the accommodation of audience interaction and the possibility of multiple endings. Regardless of the medium, the key for scripts is to focus on utilizing the bare minimum necessary to tell a story well while providing the rest of the team the freedom they need to bring it all together in alternative mediums, which brings us right back around to poetry.
Consider the benefits of studying and writing within the genres of these mediums of writing. From reading and writing in the romance and erotica genres, you can learn to master the art of writing about relationships as well as characterization through body language and communication. From mystery and suspense genres, you can learn to master pacing and tension over a scene, an entire book, or a series. From science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism, you can learn to master the art of unveiling the truth through blatant lies, keying in to your readers’ willing suspension of disbelief through world-building.
There is always something to learn from another genre or style of writing. If you read enough of a certain category or genre, you’ll gain a fundamental understanding of what to expect from that type of writing. By understanding what the reader expectations are for a type of writing, you’re more able to anticipate their needs and write a more effective composition. As I’m sure you know, some of the best writers are voracious readers. The more you know, the more prepared you’ll be to handle any sort of writing situation.
How you choose to utilize what you’ve gleaned from other forms and genres also depends on your own writing process. If you tend to write by the seat of your pants (instead of planning ahead), you may choose to take what you’ve learned into consideration in later stages revision, when you’re polishing your manuscript for publication, and/or when you are considering how to market and publicize your work.
In addition to all of these benefits for your writing, studying and composing in multiple genres can help with non-creative writing careers. Many creative writers make a living by also serving as teachers or professors. By attaining a working knowledge of all modes of communication, you’re more able to assist your students with their own writing, whether they are composing their first paragraphs and essays in grade school or strengthening their critical thinking, analysis, and persuasion skills in undergrad.. If you’re a creative writer who is also a professional writer (such as in journalism, blogging, or writing blurbs for products and/or marketing and publicity), the skill set you’ll have learning to write and adapt a story (or message) in multiple mediums can be invaluable to an employer who wants to send messaging out on multiple platforms. You understand audience engagement and awareness on multiple levels, and you can apply that knowledge to get the best result.
With these tips and tricks in mind, I hope you’ll adjust your reading and writing habits to accommodate this jack-of-all-trades mentality, using what you learn to master them all, instead of just one.
Leslie Salas holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UCF and is a graduate of the University of Denver Publishing Institute. By day, she helps students in higher education master the art of effective communication and storytelling at an entertainment, media, and arts university. On nights and weekends, she writes in multiple genres, including poetry, prose, screenwriting, and comics. Her work has appeared in The Southeast Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Burrow Press’ 15 Views, Volume II: Corridor, and more. She also serves as graphic nonfiction editor for Sweet: A Literary Confection, and frequently contributes to The Gloria Sirens. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.