Archive for June 10th, 2010

Writers love to claim that their genre is difficult and arcane. I have heard poets claim that verse is the purest and most challenging form. Ditto for writers of short stories, plays and novels. I have heard diarists claim the superiority of the private journal over the blog, traditional journalists the superiority of the newspaper story over the online article, and mainstream writers the superiority of their work over science fiction or mysteries.

Maybe I am revealing myself as a hack, but I have trouble understanding why these claims are even made. Having published (if sometimes lightly) in a variety of genres, I fail to see much difference between them. So far as I have been able to observe, the task of writing is always much the same.

I suppose that writers make these claims to soothe their pride. Although writing is no easier than any other art, anyone who has even a few grades of education knows a few of its rudiments, so non-professionals think they know all about it. Moreover, unlike music or painting, it requires only items that can be found around most households, so amateur writers abound. Go to a science fiction convention, for instance, and you can probably start a conversation with anyone you meet simply by asking, “How’s your writing going?” Under these circumstances, perhaps many professional writers feel such a strong need to assert their expertise that they over-state the case.

Still, their claims sound false to me, because they are contrary to my experience of writing.

Generally, writing begins by an assessment of format. If you are writing a poem, you generally write in lines and stanzas; if you are writing a movie script, you need to follow rigid layout conventions before anyone will consider reading it. Similarly, online writing tends to use shorter paragraphs than writing that will be read on a printed page. Such assessments becomes automatic when you become experienced in a genre, but if you switch genres, you immediately become aware of the change in expectations.

The next consideration is your audience. For instance, vocabulary tends to freer and larger in poetry, because you can expect careful readings who are willing to take the time to puzzle out obscurities. The jargon (and what you need to explain) varies with the academic or technical audience. In online writing, exaggeration and hyperbole is more common, because online readers tend to be less engaged than print readers, and you want to keep your attention. In some cases, your subject matter might also change; if I remember correctly, Sylvia Plath said that she enjoyed writing fiction occasionally because in poetry she couldn’t write about things like toothbrushes.

And so it goes, for any type of writing I have done professionally. Any piece of writing requires that you adjust to the expectations of its stylistic or content genre. And, once you have, the acts of writing, revising, and editing differ only in the details.

Under these circumstances, claiming the superiority of one form over another seems unconvincing and downright desperate. Perhaps professional writing as a whole requires a different mindset or degree of talent and discipline than amateur writing, but at the level of process, where you spend most of your time, the act of writing remains constant. I can’t help thinking that those who insist otherwise do the art an injustice, and mislead everyone – perhaps themselves most of all.

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