Recently, a friend asked the following question:
To what degree do you think practicing writing is universal? That is, will practicing one form of writing naturally make you better at another? Will writing research papers help your fiction? Will writing magazine articles make you a better poet?
This is a very interesting question, so I decided to answer him in the form of a blog post. Here you go Justin:
I’ll take the first part of the question first as it is the easiest to answer: To at least some extent, yes. Writing is writing. It all helps.
However, it is more complicated than that. Think about writing in general as being like running. Running will make you a better athlete. It will get you in better shape. But running alone won’t make you a good baseball player because there are skills baseball players use that running doesn’t have anything to do with. So it is with writing.
It’s interesting, I think, to look at the four types of writing mentioned in the question (research papers, fiction, magazine articles, and poetry) and think about similarities and differences. On the basic level, writing any of these things will eventually teach you about sentence structure. You can’t write much before you realize that varying the way sentences are constructed is important for the reading experience. Additionally, all of these types of writing use description to some extent. That is more or less where the similarities end though.
Research papers, from a writer’s perspective, are the easiest to write and the hardest to read. Typically, someone writes a research paper not to create a pleasant or compelling reading experience, but to put forth ideas with a convincing amount of evidence. This can often make for dry reading because these writers are not, typically, very audience conscious. There are examples included, of course, (research is quite literally the finding of examples) but the description typically ends there. Research papers are also the worst at having one long, ponderous sentence after another.
Of course, the hard part about research papers is the research part. Research is hard and time consuming and really has very little to do with writing which is why you tend to get the clumsiest writing in them. The writers don’t care about the writing. They care about showing their results.
The other three types are more closely related. A good magazine article is often very close kin to fiction. The difference is primarily in the use of description and character development. There is an aspect of internal invention in fiction that magazine articles lack by necessity, which is why many good journalists are very bad fiction writers. They’re all plot and no people.
Fiction and poetry are, I think, the closest types of writing and there’s a reason why they (along with playwriting and memoir) are the types of writing that make it into the “art” category. The primary difference is hard to pinpoint and any distinction I give you will be wrong in several instances. To generalize, I will say that poetry is more concerned with the individual word, phrase, and thought. Whereas fiction relies on many of those things to construct a more over-arching concept.
This is turning into a long answer, but let me try to boil it down a bit.
Research papers are generally concerned with presentation of data. They are often very dry. They will help you gain a modicum of language control, but they are not going to make you a good creative writer.
Magazine articles require a great deal of research but more awareness of a reader than do research papers. They will typically pay more attention to individual word choice and specific detail than a research paper. They will help with the writing of fiction, but I don’t see them being much more useful than a research paper for the enhancement of your poetry writing.
Fiction, done properly, should be concerned with every word, sentence, and paragraph. it requires that the writer be continuously aware of the reader even if that consciousness comes with a conscious disregarding of the reader. It should dwell as much on the internal life of a subject as on the external. If you can write fiction and you know how to research, you should have zero trouble writing a research paper or magazine article. Writing fiction can certainly help with the writing of poetry. Especially in young poets who tend toward overuse of abstraction.
Poetry requires the most minute detail of all of these. There is a necessary awareness of the effect of each word on the reader and of the effect of each word on the words around it. Speaking as someone who writes primarily fiction, I find forays into poetry extremely helpful as they raise my linguistic consciousness. Poetry will help a bit with magazine articles and bit less with research papers, but, from my perspective, writing poems to help with your paper on cell division is probably a step further than you need to go.
I hope this is an adequate answer. I could go on, but I’m guessing many of my readers have had enough of this one.