Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Second Most Important Thing a Writer Can Do: 5 Ways to Experiment as a Writer

Yesterday, I found myself messing around with my amazing chili recipe. The recipe is great as it is, but I'm not the kind of person who likes to eat the same thing every single meal. Variety is the spice of life, and good chili needs a lot of spice.

There's always another way to write something.

Writing is the same way. There are recipes out there already that are great, and writers who follow them thoroughly will automatically be better than the average bear. However, what makes a good writer stand out from other writers is the courage to experiment with something that's already working.

The most important thing a writer can do is write. The second most important thing a writer can do is experiment. That is, a writer needs to push the envelope and say something that either hasn't been said or say it in a way that creates the illusion that it's never been said.

Now, I'm not saying all writers need to become experimental writers in the sense that their work is hard to understand. Rather, I think it's important for writers to avoid becoming so predictable that their readers quit paying attention to what their reading--or worse, quit reading altogether.

Here Are 5 Ways to Experiment With Your Writing:
  1. Read new voices and imitate what you like. Many writers say they shy away from reading too much, because they don't want to be "influenced" or "steal from another writer." However, great artists do steal from other artists, whether they write songs, draw pictures, make movies, etc. You don't imitate the words, imitate the techniques.
  2. Apply concepts found in other disciplines. If you write fiction, learn about professional writing, poetry, and copywriting to provide ideas for experimenting with your stories. If you write poetry, do the same thing for your poems. And push beyond writing techniques to look at concepts in art, design, technology, cooking, etc.
  3. Pile things on. That is, push your writing to excess. Add more detail, more dialogue, more everything. Ramble. Throw in details that don't seem to relate to anything. Then, try to connect the dots or allow your readers to try and connect the dots for you.
  4. Strip things down. If your story has 2,000 words, cut it down to 200. If your poem has 20 lines, cut it to 2 lines. Strip things down to the most essential and then build it back up--unless it works in the stripped down version. Many times the most powerful writing is the most concise.
  5. Get random. Write about random subjects. Cut up the progression of your story or poem into random pieces. Cut a story into random time sequences. See how it alters your writing.
Experimentation can seem scary. Expermintation can lead to failure. It takes a brave writer to experiment, and that's why it's an important skill for writers to develop. After writing in general, it's the most important thing a writer can do.


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Andrea (Andee) Beltran said...

Experimenting is key. It's important to be adventurous and take risks in your writing. I always save the first draft of my poems so I can always go back to its original form if need be.

"Don't be afraid to go out on a limb. That's where the fruit is." - H. Jackson Browne

Thanks for this post, Robert!

Unknown said...

Nice nudge to get us out of our comfort zones! I'm learning to sketch as a way of shaking up my vision asa writer.

Robert Lee Brewer said...

That's a great quote, Andrea.

For my poetry, Kathleen, I will sometimes turn to those Taschen art books for inspiration. Also, I love to doodle and draw.

Diane Lockward said...

Great ideas. #1 is my favorite method to get a poem going. The end result never in any way resembles the model poem. During the many drafts, the poem becomes mine.

The excuses you include that some writers offer are covers for laziness.

Joanne Eddy said...

Your comments echo Carlos Casteneda, " It is important to do what you do not know how to see your skills as keeping you from learning what is deepest and most mysterious. If you know how to focus, unfocus. If your tendency is to make sense out of chaos, start chaos." Writing should push us, stretch us beyond where we stared from. Enjoyed your post...but then I always do. Thanks, Robert.

K. Clark said...

When you talk about applying concepts from other art forms, does that include movies/TV and pop music/theatrical artists and stage shows? Because I find watching that type of stuff, and reading books about social criticism (things like gender, sexuality, religion, pop culture etc.) influence my writing.

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Thank you for commenting, Diane. The first is my favorite too.

If the writing doesn't stretch the writer, then it probably won't stretch the reader, Joanne. Thanks for dropping the Castaneda quote.

K, I think those are great places from which to draw. Everyone can learn something from somewhere. In fact, many writers pull directly from nature--or from advertising and marketing.

Mollie Bryan said...

Fantastic post. I love the idea of stripping things down. I've often said that every writer should take a poetry class, even if you're a nonfiction or fiction writer. But perhaps that statement could and should be taken further--take classes in, write in, and experiment with different techniques and forms. It will make you a better writer.

Hannah said...

Quality post, Robert. Thanks again!

Robert Lee Brewer said...

No doubt, Mollie. I learned things in my professional writing and copywriting courses that helped with writing fiction and poetry--and ultimately my job as an editor.

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Hannah! It means a lot to me.

Di Eats the Elephant said...

Well said. I love the one about stripping it down, because it can be the hardest thing to do, but in my professional writing, I've had bosses who insist on 2 sentences to explain something rather than the 1 page. I need to learn more about the add, add, add, but again, stripping it down after adding might be what you're after, too, so that it's all there, and then we take out what we don't really need and use the best. Love your reference to Yogi; I find myself using it also and it made me smile. Great post. Love it.

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Chava, yes! That is exactly what I'm trying to get at with the excess. For instance, I love writing sestinas (39-line poems) to happen upon a line or two that I can use in another (more concise) poem.

Unknown said...

I found your article through a Writer's Market email, and it was a nice reminder that it's wise to be short and sweet.

I also believe in the importance of experimenting -in almost any realm of life. It takes a lot of courage and heart -to drift off to unknown places, without knowing what's on the other side.

I wish you all the best. I shall try and visit your blog, again, as I know it's inspiring when there's someone else ... on the other side ;)

Love & Grace

Nicole Alexander said...

Bob, I love this post. Going to keep it for future reference. I especially love tip #1. Imitation is how we all learn how to write, and as a previous commenter said, in the process of revising, the work becomes our own.