Writers: Cross-training is essential

Just like “playing professional football” isn’t one solitary skill, but a set of separate skills, you don’t study and practice “writing.”

There are dozens of separate skills involved.

  • Structure and storytelling, which is done best by the screenwriting peoples of Hollywood
  • Hooks and headlines (which you learn from ink-stained journalists and smooth-talking copywriters)
  • Taglines (Hollywood) and pitches (publicity peoples)
  • Speeches, opeds and persuasive writing (the rarely seen speechwriter, often riding fleet unicorns while fleeing from trolls)
  • Small-bore editing (grammar, copy editing and all that)
  • Dialogue (playwrights and novelists)
  • Big-bore editing (destroying a piece with your wicked red pen, then stitching it back together: better, faster, stronger)
  • Design and layout (book designers, cover artists, photographers, web designers)
  • The use and abuse of photos and imagery (photographers, journalists, photo-journalists
  • Publicity, sales and marketing

It’s a lot like the 53-whatever guys who play on a football team. Want to learn how to kick a field goal? Don’t ask the quarterback – bribe the kickers after teasing them about how clean their unis always are.

Need to become a better tackler? Talk to the linebackers. Want to run faster? Work out with the wide receivers and cornerbacks.

Because if you don’t cross-train, you’ll wind up looking silly. Like this.

Same thing with MMA fighters. They’re so well-rounded now, mixing striking with wrestling and ju-jitsu. Nobody who fights for money would think of spending all their time on one skill while ignoring the others, because they would get crushed into powder … and no longer pay the bills as a professional fighter. Delivering pizzas, maybe. Fighting, no. Unlike the bad old days of boxing, there isn’t a market for tomato cans that up-and-coming fighters match up with to pump up their record.

As a writer, I’ve learned the most from cross-training. Journalism and speechwriting are completely different, just like writing screenplays happens on a different planet from writing novels.

You can’t learn the other things while you play around in your favorite sandbox — but the skills you learn from hanging out in other writerly sandboxes has gargantuan payoffs.

6 thoughts on “Writers: Cross-training is essential

  1. Good point. Always nice to have some general writing experience to add to your story craft. Personally I believe the truly great writers are good in a variety of ways-like Hemingway did journalism and great novels/short stories. Although when you get to the really elite levels it becomes very tough to specialize in two fields.

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  2. I agree wholeheartedly! Experimenting with different styles and genres has definitely made me a better writer overall. And it has helped me to develop my own unique voice — despite the different voices that I have learned to write in over the years. Great post!

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  3. I agree writers have to practice but one also has to have literary talent..
    Loved that video and great post!!!

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  4. I was just thinking I should try my hand at short stories, and maybe playing with other genres, just to flex my muscles, but I love the idea of trying different types of writing.

    The areas I have very little experience with are screenwriting and journalism. Maybe it’s time to give them a go. =)

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  5. Of course, this advice applies to more than just writers…but I know you’re talking to a particularly stubborn audience, so I won’t belabor the point of exposing oneself to other techniques. 🙂

    Screenwriting was eye-opening for me, personally. The end product is such a collaborative effort, across several “writers” who often have very different perspectives. You’ll start with one thing and can end up with a story that’s sometimes unrecognizable from the initial idea!

    I see the broad range of ability and technique in students, especially. They can have identical experience on their resumes, but the style – and competency – of their writing (in a query letter, let’s say) will be drastically different. I can absolutely tell which one has written only research papers, and which one has tried their hand at short stories, news articles, and screenplays.

    Thanks for the informative post…and for the refresher tips about getting to know your subject. I’m still due to take my local radio programming manager out for coffee! 😀

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