How do you know what type of writer you are?

What sort of writer are you? A novelist? A copywriter? A screenwriter? And how did you decide which type of writer you would be?
Considering how long it takes to write a novel, a book’s worth of short stories or collection of poems, we writers don’t half make quick decisions about what sort of writer we are.

Some of us make these decisions based on what we want to write, and that seems pretty logical. But how can you be sure that you’re not ploughing the wrong furrow?

How do you know that you wouldn’t be better off writing something else instead?

Where to start?

If someone asks me what I write, I tell them I’ve written a novel and that I also work as a copywriter. But that’s not how I started my writing journey.

The truth is, I only started writing a novel because I got to take an extra module on my MA Writing course for free. It was quite the bargain, looking back.

Before then I was all geared up to write a collection of short stories. I had a few finished, but I was struggling to bring them together and had no concept for a full collection.

What’s more, I’m not sure the writing itself was quite there. It was okay, perhaps pretty good in places, but nowhere near the required standard if I was to find an agent or get published.

Switching to the novel was a revelation.

Something new

I’d written two or three pages before I realised that, rather than pursue these kind-of-all-right-but-not-particularly-satisfying short stories, I should write a novel. It was so incredibly obvious.

In tackling a longer form, the quality of my writing improved significantly. The patterns and rhythm of my sentences got better and I discovered a passion for ruthless editing.

But more than that, it just felt right. Like there was no going back.

I made the change because I got a great opportunity, that’s true. But I was also struggling with my writing. By trying something new, I became a different writer. I could feel it in my water and see it on the page.

Sometimes I wonder where my writing would be if I hadn’t switched format. Would my short stories have eventually come together?

I’ll never know and it doesn’t matter.

Don’t be afraid to change direction

Writers often talk about having to find their writing voice, but rarely do you hear of them experimenting with format.

My advice is to try everything, especially if you feel like you’ve hit a brick wall. At the very least, a change will give you a break from your current project. It will help you to recharge your batteries and give you the space to breathe and be playful.

You never know, you might even end up heading in a whole new direction. It might be the start of something great. The point is, you’ll never know until you try.

  1. Hmm…great idea!…I used to write essays and poems, then graduated to articles and stories.Novel seems impossible- do not have the patience…but your words are inspiring..

    1. Hi Jasmin – I’m glad you enjoyed the article. And yes, novel writing does take a lot of patience, but if you find you love it and your work is great, then it’s well worth it. Maybe give it a weekend of writing and see how you get on?

  2. I’ve known from my scholldays that I wanted to write novels, but never really settled on what genre to write in. A brief flirtation with short stories, and even briefer attempt at poetry and I returned to novels. But it’s only after twenty-plus years of writing ‘never-ending-stories’ that I began to appreciate the benefits of structure, planning and style. Now close to completing my first ever novel. Yay!

    1. Fantastic, congratulations! It’s touch when things don’t come to you straight away, and sometimes it takes experimenting with other formats to realise you were on the right track originally. It’s a funny old business, this writing lark.

  3. I started out “knowing” I wanted to write screenplays. That was 20 years ago, since which I’ve tried everything from journalism (I still enjoy the column I do for a writers’ mag, and reviewing bands and poetry) through a comedy travelogue (the story about writing the book earned £300 from Woman’s Own which is the most I’ve ever earned from writing), three novels now, a sometime dalliance with poetry (a form I utterly fail to comprehend but love writing), but ultimately I keep coming back again and again to the short story. Be it the long short story or the as-near-flash-as-makes-no-difference. I think it’s because I’m happiest performing – there is nothing quite as rewarding as standing in front of a crowd and watching their faces change from mirth to shock to bum-squirming awkwardness as you lead them by the ears from start to finish of a short.

  4. I had started 4 or 5 novels over the last twenty years. Some made it to 40 or 50 pages, some 4 or 5 paragraphs. So I decided to write a short story. Then as I began writing the short story, the charactors came to live and the “plot thickened.”
    Now, I have 40-50,000 words on paper, the charactors are stll talking and the plot is still thickening. Funny how that works.

    Another thing I found interesting was the effect of putting the writing down for a few days or a week. It seems to work in allowing your mind to open up to new possibilities for the story, that seemingly come from nowhere, idea’s you couldn’t see as you pored over the writing every day for a month or two.

    Thanks for your insights Lain. I find them to be very helpful.

    1. Taking a short break from your work really does give you a sense of perspective and allows you to go back to your writing with fresh eyes. It’s actually easier to do when writing a novel, as there is plenty of other materials that can be worked on in the meantime!

  5. I have tried a wide variety of stuff. I have loved writing for as long as I can remember. As a little kid I wrote short stories.. first wee little three and four sentence things (I was only four or five). I always dreamed of writing fantasy novels; it’s what I love to read. In high school I wrote a ton of poetry, mostly free verse stuff. I also wrote a couple of short silly scripts for drama class in high school and later for an after school kids drama club production I organized. Of course in university studying English and Theatre I wrote endless essays (not my preference, it’s the creative writing I love of course). I wrote a full screenplay as a part of Script Frenzy and then sadly stopped writing for a few years. This past November I wrote my first novel draft for the National Novel Writing Month challenge (50K words in 30 days). It’s rather crappy and at this stage I have no interest in taking it anywhere but such an amazing experience to learn that I can pump out more than just three or four pages of creative prose. I also recently discovered flash fiction and have churned out a few pieces of my own. Now I’m brainstorming a new novel (or series) idea.
    Maybe I have writing ADD. lol. My dream is still to write and publish a good novel, but it’s fun to play with all sorts of different things. It can be a challenge to adapt from one format to another (script to novel, full length novel down to flash fiction) but each has something to teach and you have an opportunity to really focus on various aspects of your own writing.

    1. You’ve reminded me of another benefit of experimenting, which I didn’t include in my article. It’s bloody good fun! If you want a break from an intense project but don’t want to break from your writing rhythm, that’s a good time to write something else.
      Thanks for your comment Nicole. It sound like you’ve given most formats a good chance and are enjoying exploring each one.

  6. This post baked my noodle a little, I must admit. It’s like you’ve talked about writing from the opposite direction to that which I take. I’ve never once considered which type of writing I do, I just write and sometimes it’s is a short story, or a piece of flash fiction, or a novel, or a press release or the most boring (to me) search engine optimised copy for a client.
    Seeing it from the perspective of this post feels like saying “do you eat spagetti or tagliatelle” when all I would say is I eat pasta and sometimes it’s shaped one way and sometimes it’s shaped another way.

    I’m not sure I’m expressing this very well (which for a writer is a terrible fear to have) but my brain is a little bit broken by the idea that I would find my way into a piece of writing via the format, rather than just the act of writing.

    Of course, the format makes such a huge difference, it may be that it happens on such an unconscious level I’ve never considered it before. Writing a client’s press release for seach engine linkage requires a different headspace. Writing a short story feels very different to writing a novel. This year I am having a short story anthology published and my debut novel, and they inhabit completely separate areas of my brain.

    Actually, I’m just burbling now. Sorry 🙂 I’ll go and figure out why this is muddling me somewhere else!

    And for what it’s worth, I love that you’ve baked my noodle 🙂

    1. And I’m exactly the same as you, Emma. I write copy during the day, then fiction at night (not to mention blog posts!).
      I think my main point is that if you’re struggling with something, a change of direction might be helpful. Or if you’ve never attempted a different format, you won’t know if you’re missing your true calling.

      Does that make more sense?

      1. Yes, that does make sense (I’ve had a cup of tea which helps). It’s not something I’ve ever felt the need to do, but I can imagine how it would help.
        One type of writing that I doubt I will ever try again is poetry. I used to write quite a lot of it when I was at school, it was all awful of course. I don’t feel any connection with writing it now though. Are there any formats you actively avoid?

        1. Indeed, my poetry is also woeful. I find it utterly odd that I can pick out the rhythm of a sentence, edit it to within an inch of its life, yet ask me to write a tight stanza or couplet and I start to sound twee and just, gah! Not for me. At least not at the moment. I might come back to it in the future but the only thing I want to write at the moment is another novel and possibly a screenplay.

  7. I’ve read conflicting comments from published novelists regarding what tense to write in. Some say to write only in the past tense as others say the “new” way of writing is in the present tense. Any thoughts from anyone?

    1. It will probably change from book to book. There was certainly a hooha last year from Philip Pullman and Phlip Henscher over the Booker list. Some genre fiction carries definitive reader (and therefore publisher) expectations, but outside of that it has to go down to the book in question, surely?

      1. Thanks. I’m in the US and wasn’t familiar with the two Phillips or the hooha over the Booker list. I then read an article by Pullman at the Guardian and I think he makes valid points regarding the limits of writing in the present tense. But, at the same time I agree with what you wrote regarding the book in question and the publisher’s expectations and desires.
        I’m a carpenter, and there are many different ways of accomplishing the same task that will yield similar results. Actually, I find many similarities between carpentry work and writing. You can half ass something and walk away from it aware that you did. You can spend the time and effort to get it up to your standards, or even spend too much time and effort and muck it up worse than it was to start with which then causes you to spend even more time and effort in getting it right. And, so to speak at least, your name is on every piece of work you finish as you seek to be payed for your efforts.

        1. I think the notion that one way is inherently better or more sophisticated than the other is utter nonsense. My novel is first person and it plays a huge role in the tone of the novel. It wouldn’t be the same without it. You should think long and hard about the best way to tell your story and then be behind it 100%, whichever way you decide to go.

  8. I started off as a freelance writer, with the occasional deviation into short stories, and if anyone had told me that in a few years time I would be writing novels I would have said they were crazy!. Now it is my passion and I still love writing short stories when I need a break from my novel. I have also done a screenwriting course but don’t know if it’s my thing – I love the interior life aspect of writing fiction. But I think it’s great to be open to experimenting with all types of writing – you might discover a hidden talent!

  9. I found this post very interesting. I wanted to write a novel as soon as I learnt to read but never had a strong enough idea or theme until now. I love the idea of the long journey through a forest of words with the occasional clearing in which to flourish a particular skill. I really enjoy the journey. Short Stories? haven’t got the patience (although I always loved reading short stories by W. Somerset Maugham). Poetry? Not a clue. I have written a novel. I have been doing some ruthless revisions but am currently at a ‘back to the drawing board’ stage and seeking feedback. It will be resolved, though. I’m confident of that. I think the secret is I may have slightly confused my genre…not widely off the mark just some correction needed. In summary yes, the long piece of work for me, the one that I live and breathe. The sequel is in my head too.

    1. I like how you haven’t got the patience for short stories and yet have written a novel. It just goes to show how each format poses different challenges for different writers. I haven’t got the patience for poetry, and yet you’d think that was the quickest, most simple form to write in.

  10. Thanks Ian your post comes at the right time for me, I started wanting to write novels and as i started on the learning path, got involved in ebooks, articles and blogs, now feel so bogged done with this my novels left in a lonely heap. I am now going to take a break, read some novels and find my mojo to go to novels and develop my writing. Thanks again Lesley

    1. Ooh, that’s a very modern challenge but also a very difficult one. We’re expected to build a platform, yet the time it takes to do that could be spent writing another novel, another short story and so on. I know the feeling well and the things to aim for is a balance between the two. Good luck.

  11. Great post, and great conversation!
    I don’t know if I know what kind of writer I am yet. I’ve finished primary drafts of a few novels, but have never edited any to completion. My current WIP will be my first! I like poetry, but I am pretty sure that I write poetry for myself and not publication (although I had a few published in a student pub during college). However, short stories? There might be something there for me. I sometimes have a hard time with the long format of the novel, and would like to try my hand at writing a short story collection next. Thanks for posting this, giving me the inspiration (and kick in the rear) that I need!

  12. i’ve tried a project with short stories, and a project with novels, and so far i seem to be pretty universal with them. I’m just going to settle with novels, i think. Although i could try poetry. i’ll probably suck at it but… the fun of the experience is all that matters, right?

  13. I’m having such a hard time with this. I’ve always known I wanted to write stories but there are so many ways to do that and you have to really invest time to figure out where your talent and passion merge that it’s a bit unnerving. So far I know I’m stronger at fiction. I tried short stories. People seem to like them but it’s like pulling teeth for me. Recently I took a play writing calass. That was absolutey amazing. I think I’m going to dabble in that one for a whil but screenwriting also looks tempting :/ 

    1. It’s important to enjoy what you do too, so if you liked the play writing class, I say give that a try for a while. You’ll probably need to have a good go at one thing at some point, but while you’re still feeling your way, there’s no harm experimenting.

  14. For years, I told myself I was too impatient for novels and that I should stick to poems, essays, and short stories…but as I grow older, I realize that I have the opposite problem. I’m way too patient for short stories, as I love being able to spend months and months adding details and descriptions onto page after page with seemingly no end in sight…short stories are just too, well, short for me to be able to write them easily. I still love poems, though.

  15. I’ve been writing a novel for a little under half my life (still in secondary school) and I feel like it’s my aim in life. Writing novels. I hate and despise all other types of writing, including poems. Almost every teacher I’ve had so far has said I am their top student in literature class, or that I have one of the most amazing imaginations paired with amazing writing ability that they’ve seen.But here’s the problem.
    The book I’ve been writing since 2006, the one I had mentioned above, is only on page 157 of the planned 300-500. I love writing, but for the last few months, I haven’t been able to write. Mentally, that is. I don’t know why. The story compels me very much, the writing style is the one I feel like writing at the moment, but while writing, I feel disappointed at what I write. It’s very beautiful, and wondrous…I don’t know why I feel so disheartened when I write. Can you possibly help me provide an answer please?

    -Dark

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