Writing Differently: Picking Up the Scary Tools

If all has gone well with your writing so far, by now you may have some favorite practices: maybe you always outline your pieces, or you just start writing with a vague scene in mind to get to, or you scribble a bunch of scenes on index cards and then try to figure out what order they should go in. You may have a sense of some special strengths and weaknesses: maybe people tell you you have an ear for dialog, or you have trouble with action scenes, or your settings come out convincing and vivid, or you couldn’t write romance if Jane Austen were sitting in your lap.

So, good: you have some favorite techniques to use. This now gives you an opportunity to do something very productive–specifically, to violate them.

rusty old tools

Why, you might sensibly ask, would I suggest throwing away exactly the things that work for you best? Why put aside the comfortable tools for the scary tools that you’re not even sure you can operate correctly? [image by Pop Loser]

First, I’m only suggesting this as an exercise, or a series of exercises. There’s nothing to say that if you’re an outline writer now that you can’t stay an outline writer forever. But if you want to improve both the quality of your prose and your facility in getting the words on paper, you’ll want to up your game, and upping your game generally means not just trying harder, but trying differently. Good writing habits are valuable, and consistency creates them, but variation creates learning opportunities that consistency can’t offer.

Here are some of the advantages of trying differently:

  • You get insights into your process, into what advantages your current approach has and/or why you should start considering other avenues.
  • You may unexpectedly find a new favorite method of doing something. If you’re used to writing one way, you may have avoided another approach because you don’t have the practice at it and feel unsure of yourself with it. Experimenting with those other ways gives you the chance to try them on for size.
  • You’ll get a better sense of what your available tools and options are. For instance, if you generally write very little dialog and as an exercise trying writing an all-dialog story, you may find yourself working out dialog techniques that you had never considered before. These become new tools on your utility belt, ones that might come in handy if you hit a wall with your usual tools some time in the future.
  • Challenging yourself while writing is a good way to stimulate your brain and improve your chops. We get better at tasks through “deliberate practice,”which is to say challenging work plus feedback. If we fall back on our accustomed writing practices, we’re not challenged and therefore aren’t likely to improve much.

Those are some of the whys of writing differently; following are some of the hows. The next time you’re bored with what you’re working on, or need to get warmed up, or have time for a side project, look at one or more of these areas and choose an approach completely different from your usual. Alternatively, get together with several writer friends and take turns choosing approaches from any of the categories below. (Examples: “Outline a short story by writing down a bunch of scenes and then finding an order to put them in”; “Write a very short story longhand based on a tense opening situation”) Adding mojitos for this kind of get-together is optional.

While of course it’s always possible that you’ll write something that works magnificently with one of these exercises, I’d recommend caring more about what you learn from the process than about how the final version comes out. Worrying too much about the story not coming out perfectly or being saleable while trying out a new technique can make it a lot harder to really throw yourself into the experiment.

Building your story

Some of us just start writing; others outline; others write scenes on index cards; others gradually develop sets of ideas into a coherent structure using a tool like Scrivener. Consider trying whichever method is least like the one you use now.

The kernel of your story

You may tend to start stories with an idea for an important scene, with a character, with a setting, with a plot idea, or with an initial situation. What methods have you rarely or never used to start a story?

The physical act of writing

Do you always write on a computer? Then what happens if you write longhand, or dictate into an audio recorder or voice recognition system, or try telling the story to a friend (or to yourself in the car) before writing it down? Does your style change? Is the process easier, harder, faster, slower, deeper, more unusual? Are there any unexpected advantages?

Story form

If you usually write novels, you might try a short story or two. If you write short stories, try flash, or even poetry, or just outlining a novel to see what that structure would look like. Consider writing a short stage play, radio play, or screenplay, even if it’s not in proper format, to focus more on dialog (stage), dialog and sound (radio/podcast), or sight and sound (screen).


If you always write science fiction or fantasy, try a non-speculative romance or a mainstream piece. If your stories are always full of clever talk, try writing a piece that’s mainly action. What kinds of muscles do you need to flex in these unaccustomed kinds of stories that don’t usually get much exercise?

Editing habits

If you tend to write freely and edit later, try writing something in which you concentrate on getting everything right the first time–not because this will necessarily work, but because of the different kind of focus it will create. If you always try to get everything right in the first draft, try writing more freely to see if it offers you better opportunities.

Asking “what else”?

Most importantly of all, consider more options. Many of us have a tendency, when we come to a place where we have a writing decision, to work on that decision only long enough to come up with a solution that works–one solution. Instead of settling for one, try to brainstorm five, say, even if a couple of them are a little loopy. Statistically, what’s the chance that your first idea for a character, plot turn, way of expressing something, etc. is going to be the best one you could possibly come up with? Tell yourself “Sure, that would be one good solution. And what’s a completely different one?”

My intentions here aren’t to derail your writing practices permanently, but to offer some approaches you can take to push the envelope and to develop and expand your skills. As writers, we’ll be tempted by any success to think that we need to keep doing things the way we’re already doing them. Certainly it’s sometimes possible to build a career by doing the same thing over and over, but constantly trying new angles will continue to build a writer’s skills in ways that eventually leaves stagnant writers eating our dust.


Luc Reid

Luc Reid is a Writers of the Future winner whose fiction and nonfiction have also appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Abyss & Apex, and other venues. He’s the founder of the Codex online neo-pro writers’ group; author of Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures (Writers Digest Books, 2006); a founding member of flash fiction group The Daily Cabal, on which site well over a hundred of his stories have appeared; and a former radio commentator for Jacksonville, Florida NPR affiliate WJCT. He blogs sporadically about writing at http://reidwrite.livejournal.com and posts five articles a week on tactics and insights for self-motivation at http://www.willpowerengine.com . His eBook The Writing Engine: A Practical Guide to Writing Motivation, is available for PDF download on his site (free) as well as for Kindle.