What, Exactly, Are You Writing?

We’ve talked here before about writing styles, and also about Styles in writing. But I don’t think we’ve talked yet about different big-picture styles of writing – different formats, if you will – for conveying your ideas to someone else. So let’s nail this down.

Let’s say you want to write a business letter. I learned way back in my high school typing class (yes, in fact, it was called “typing” then, not “keyboarding” – and I thought I told you to stay off my lawn!) that a business letter has a specific format. Your address goes at the top, either centered or right-justified; then you double-space and put the date, centered; then triple-space and type the name and address for the person you’re sending the letter to; and so on. A variation on this is the open punctuation business letter, which I’d never heard of until my fellow minion, T.D. McKinnon, mentioned it last week.

So business letters comprise one major writing format. There are other specialized formats such as grant writing, technical writing, newspaper style, and the legal brief. (Obviously, there are more; those are simply off the top of my head.) Each has a specific structure, and a particular way of presenting information in order to achieve the result that the writer is after.

And then there’s the academic essay. We all learned this one in school, right? Your first paragraph includes your topic and what you hope to prove; your next several paragraphs flesh out the points you want to make, one point per paragraph; and your concluding paragraph summarizes your argument. In short: “Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, then tell ‘em, then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.”

Quite possibly, if you’ve graduated from high school in the United States within the last ten years, you were taught to structure paragraphs in this same way. If so, it was likely in an Advanced Placement class, and it was designed to get you to do well on the essay portion of the AP test. I am sorry to have to break this to you, but that’s the only thing it’s good for. Structuring a paragraph like an academic essay doesn’t have a single application in the real world that I can think of.

And it definitely has no place in writing fiction. Fiction has a totally different format from any of the other types of writing I’ve already mentioned. It has a structure, but its structure is generally not a rigid framework; it’s more of a supple backbone that allows the story to bend and reach, loop back on itself, and perform any number of contortions. It still achieves the result that the writer is after (we fervently hope) – just not in the same way.

This is why it’s important for authors to be readers. Read in your genre, and pay attention when you read. And don’t just pay attention to the story. You also need to pay attention to the way the author has structured the story, right down to sentence formation and paragraph structure.

I wouldn’t think this needed mentioning, but K.S. Brooks says she’s been seeing a rigid paragraph structure in fiction contest entries she has judged. She couldn’t figure out where the idea was coming from, but I remembered one of my daughters mentioning it when she was in high school.

Anyway, when you start writing, just keep in mind: a short story isn’t an essay test. Know what you’re writing and structure it accordingly.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

10 thoughts on “What, Exactly, Are You Writing?”

  1. Excellent post, Lynne. You’re dead on about eveything…especially the reading part. To write, you have to read; any good author will tell you that. Like Stephen King says: “If you don’t have time to read – you can’t write.”

  2. Great post. I totally agree. Reading is key to being a good writer. I remember reading somewhere that you should read both good and bad writing – you can learn from both. I must say, good writing is far more inspiring though 🙂

    Thanks for sharing, Lynne.

  3. My background is/was technical writing and it took me 10 long years to unlearn that style of writing. 🙁 I will say one thing though, I am a pantster when I write fiction, but… after I’ve been nice and creative I do use some of my old skills to restructure the story so it flows from one thought/concept/scene to the next. The only jerks I want in my writing are the ones I deliberately put there.

    1. Yup, those smooth transitions are evidence of your story’s backbone. 🙂

      Congrats on unlearning tech writing! My nonfiction co-author was a technical writer. He kept putting all the interesting anecdotes in the endnotes. I tried to break him of it, but it didn’t take. 🙁

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