In my first job out of college, I was asked to write a letter to a local business owner asking for his financial support of our nonprofit’s work. I began the letter with something like, “I hope this fall weather is finding you well and healthy.” I liked that opening – it was casual and personal.
But when I showed it to my colleague, a banker, he laughed with gentleness. “Andi,” he said, “you can’t start a business letter so casually. You have to cut to the chase.” I still remember that lesson, handed over to me by a friend by the printer.
In the intervening years, I studied professional writing and creative writing, and I learned to move between the two as needed. I taught professional writing (think reports, resumes, and memos) to engineers, and I taught creative writing to English majors. . . and here’s what I’ve learned:
- All writing is creative. No matter whether you are writing copy for a business website or a technical report or a scientific journal article, you are being creative when you write.
- All writing needs to tend its audience and work with that audience’s expectations. Every audience needs and wants different things from a work. Someone reading an article about sea turtles in Smithsonian expects facts and good, clear writing that is accessible for a layperson. Someone reading about sea turtles in a marine biology journal expects facts, processes, and good clear writing that uses the technical terms of the field. The articles may say the same thing, but the expectations of that audience are different.
- All writing needs to work with purpose in mind. Most professional forms of writing have education or persuasion as their ultimate goals. Some forms of creative writing also hold education or persuasion as their goals – self-help, history, etc. – but then, the expectations of the audience change how we educate or persuade in those genres. Then, some forms of creative writing – fiction, poetry, etc. – hold entertain as the central purpose, and so while they may impart information, their primary goal is to pull the reader into the story or language on the page.
Learning a New Genre of Writing
So if we want to move from one form, one genre of writing to the other, we have to study the audience for whom we are writing, we have to look at what the other works in that genre have established as the conventions of that category of writing, and we need to understand the purpose of our writing.
So take a business letter. A business letter has as its convention immediacy. The person reading the letter needs to know the central point of the letter right away, in the first sentence. When you compare that to the opening of a personal letter between romantic partners, the purpose shifts and becomes more about connection and less about information.
Or consider writing an academic paper about the purposes of writing for an English Composition journal – something I used to do a lot as an English professor. In that journal, I would be looking to use studies performed by other academics to prove one central point about a writer’s purpose. My language would be academic and laden with terms like imperative and pedagogical, and I would use MLA format to cite my sources and provide avenues for a reader to delve deeper into the research behind my argument.
However, in this blog post, which has the purpose of information AND a bit of entertainment, I include story and lots of casual examples, and I keep my language to the common vocabulary we all share. I am saying the same thing I’d say in a formal paper, but I’m saying it differently.
The key, then, is to study the forms in which we write and to work with the conventions of that form in terms of purpose and audience. The best ways I know to undertake that study are to read a lot and practice writing in that form.
Some Practical Tips
If you are moving from more academic or business or even journalistic writing to more creative writing, I hope these ideas might help.
- Recognize that creative writing isn’t more or less intelligent or difficult than writing in your discipline; it’s just different. Don’t demean one form or the other, or else you run the risk of belitting your readers.
- Read deeply and analytically in the genre you want to write. Take notes on what you’re reading. Study how those works begin and end. Look at the conventions of language – sentence structure, vocabulary, etc – that those works use.
- Read writing books about that genre. Spend some time in a local indie bookstore or online looking at writing books in your new genre, and then read a few. Take notes. Attend to the differences between what you have written in the past and what you want to write now.
- Copy the masters. I mean this literally. Write out by hand or type out passages of works that you find especially strong. Get the language of that writer into your body and mind. Don’t publish that, of course, but do copy it. It’ll help you break the habits of your engrained way of writing.
- Practice. Write in that genre. Give it a go and then put it aside for a bit. Then come back and analyze it with cool, fresh eyes. Use what you’ve learned in your reading and copying to shape what you write. Then, do it again.
It’s a hard thing to move from one form of writing to another, but writers do it all the time. I firmly believe that if you can write in one form, you can write in any. You just need to study and practice to master that new form.
Have you moved from one form of writing to another? How did you manage that transition? Or if you’re in the midst of it, how are you navigating that move? Any particular challenges for you?
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