Monday, November 07, 2005

Fish gotta swim, writers gotta write

Over the years, I've met a lot of people who make a lot of erroneous assumptions about writing. Like assuming that if you write in one style or genre, you can't write in another. Or that if you have only have one type of writing experience, there's no way you can ever write about another. For example, if you write about horses, you'll never be able to write about race cars.

I remember I once met a guy who ran an advertising agency. He told me there was a big difference between newspaper writers and magazine writers and copywriters. "The styles are completely different," he said. "There are specialists for each one, but they just can't make the crossover." In other words, a magazine writer couldn't be a copywriter or a newspaper writer.

However, the guy admitted from the beginning that he wasn't a writer. ("I'm just a businessman who owns an ad agency," he said.) He only knew what he did because his magazine specialist told him she couldn't write marketing copy. Therefore, according to his logic, other writers can't cross over either.

Normally I would have thought this was an aberration, but I've seen it many times: Naysayers who don't understand the writing process or the idea that if you can write well, you can write about anything. There are thousands of people who have crossed genres and even forms very successfully. Humor columnist Dave Barry wrote a novel, presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan is now a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and playwright Samuel Beckett was a radio theater writer of no small talent.

But if these Naysayers had their way, Barry never would have left newspaper reporting to start his column, Noonan would have stayed at CBS Radio, and Beckett would probably still be writing ad jingles and outdoor billboards (or whatever it is he did before radio).

And while I'm not as successful as these people, I've proven the Naysayers wrong on more than one occasion.

My very first article was published by my college newspaper in the spring of 1989. I became a weekly columnist four months later.

After I became a humor columnist, I tried my hand at a 30-minute radio play, and took second place in a scriptwriting contest.

I wanted to become a speechwriter, so I joined Toastmasters, and eight months later, became a speechwriter for a US Congressional candidate in 2004. I turned that experience into two paid articles in Toastmasters magazine.

I had never written a stage play until this past summer, and didn't know a thing about what a stage play entailed. But I gave it a whack anyway. That play, "Cabin Fever U." (originally titled "Into the Woods") netted me the Best Comedy in the 2005 Frank and Katrina Basile Emerging Playwright Awards. In other words, I'm now the funniest playwright in the state of Indiana. Not too shabby for a guy who previously couldn't tell you where Stage Left was in three tries.

Obviously, if I had listened to the ad agency owner, I never should have strayed from column writing, because -- according to him -- column writing is different from radio theater is different from speechwriting is different from stage plays. (And never mind the 11 years of corporate copywriting I've done.)

To be a successful writer in any field, you just have to be good. It doesn't matter what your focus is, if you can write well, you can about nearly anything. It may take some practice to get the style down, but a good technical writer could become a good novelist. A good business writer could become a good newspaper writer. And on and on.

There are thousands of writers who prove this every day. I know newspaper columnists who become PR flaks. I know corporate copywriters who write poetry. And I know dozens of magazine freelancers who will publish an article in an industrial trade journal one week and a parenting article the next.

It's not hard. If you know how to tell a good story that people want to read, you can write about anything. A bad writer with lots of experience in a single area can be more boring and ineffective than a good writer with some experience in a lot of areas.