Improve Your Writing By Ignoring Your Genre

by Liz Lazzara
Westend61/Westend61/Getty Images

When you accept that you’re a writer, one of the first pieces of advice you’ll inevitably receive is to read as much as you can within your desired genre. The guaranteed way to become proficient in any craft is to study it thoroughly. Writing is no exception (and if you're a writer, you understand all the amazing things about reading). And aren't each of us looking to become a better writer?

If you want to become a novelist, you should study novels, all sorts. Commercial fiction, literary fiction, genre fiction, historical fiction, naturalistic fiction, bildungsroman ... you get the point. The same goes for poetry, essays, memoir, journalism, short stories, lifestyle pieces, fashion blogging, and anything else you can think of that might be written. If you have a niche, you should be well-versed in it.

However, few literary sages will be smart enough to dispense another key piece of advice: reading outside of your genre. On the surface, it makes no sense. If you want to write political commentary, what could you learn from haiku? If you want to become a music reviewer, what use would scientific journalism be to you? Or, in my case, if you want to be a novelist or memoirist, how important could sports writing be to your growth as a writer?

Actually, incredibly important.

This summer, during the waning period of the baseball season, I discovered Grant Brisbee, a sports writer with a particular yen for baseball. I have an undying passion for the MLB, so intense in fact that I probably alienated a few of my tables at my waitressing job by hollering audibly at the TV. I also have a Twitter addiction, and Brisbee is a very active tweeter, commenting on players, games, and potential trades with clarity and enthusiasm. I’d never seen someone write about statistics, odds, and business moves with wit before. I was entranced.

Soon, I was devouring nearly every one of his articles. I retweeted them. I commented on them. I sent a few of them to other sports enthusiasts so they could join in the fun. It’s probably an understatement to say that his writing made up at least half of my reading from August through October.

But I didn’t just enjoy Brisbee’s writing — I learned from it. And I didn’t just figure out how to be a good sports writer (though I can see the appeal of it now), but the approach I’m taking to my novel, memoir, and personal essays has improved, too — in three crucial ways.

1. Reading Outside Your Genre Can Lend Credence to Your Work

Before reading Brisbee’s work, I didn’t think much about using outside sources in my writing. I mainly write either fiction or personal essays, so I didn’t see how I could use research in my work without alienating my audience.

Brisbee showed me how.

Obviously statistics are a big part of writing about baseball. Measuring the worth of a player is nearly impossible without referencing batting averages, on-base percentages, and wins above replacement, among others. But using statistics or other outside data can also be helpful in writing about some of my favorite topics: depression, relationships, and the writing process.

One of my most recent pitches was accepted (I believe) because I noted that I wanted to use pieces by The Daily Mail and The New York Post as support for my argument, and I’ve been more confident in sending out pitches lately because I can include information about what’s been written before on the topics I’m interested in covering.

What can other writers learn?: No matter your genre, incorporating outside information can be helpful — even if that information never makes it into the piece itself. If you want to write a poem about the light on a winter’s day, knowing the science behind optics or seasonal changes could pepper your stanzas with interesting insight and vocabulary. If you want to make sure your fictional character is well-rounded, looking into psychology or personality profiles might help. And, of course, if you want to write a think-piece about the impact of Facebook on today’s society, knowing something about Mark Zuckerberg would be crucial.

The takeaway is that sometimes research is necessary, sometimes it’s interesting, and sometimes it’s completely unhelpful. But if you don’t read outside your genre, you lose out on new perspectives that could turn your piece into something truly extraordinary.

2. Reading Outside Your Genre Can Lend Nuance to Your Tone

Writing with humor is not my forte. I can be sarcastic, sincere, inspirational, candid, and sometimes clever, though not usually all in the same piece. But Brisbee is decidedly funny in a lot of his pieces. I giggled all the way through his list of the worst commercials of the post-season, was delightedly amused by the recap of the Pirates’ Wild Card game loss, and smirked at the silliness of the explanation of the MLB’s Winter Meetings. I anticipate more enjoyment to come.

The thing about Brisbee’s humor, though, is that it takes nothing away from the intelligence of his writing. Instead, it accentuates the facts with just enough color for each article to be a fun read as well as an informational one. As Dr. Seuss said, “I like nonsense. It wakes up the brain cells.”

I have yet to incorporate much humor into my writing. I’m still learning the craft of comedy, and I’m not sure yet if I’m cut out for it. However, I’ve learned that being funny doesn’t replace good content. Rather, it can enhance good content, make particular subjects easier to read about, and keep a reader’s attention when it might otherwise wander.

What can other writers learn?: When you read outside of your tonal comfort zone, you learn to see the holes in your writing that might otherwise be invisible. If you only read and write serious reportage, you might not be able to present human-interest stories or interviews to the best of your ability unless you read personal essays or character-driven fiction. If you only read and write funny listicles, you might not be able to deliver a proper punchline without looking into some essays or newspaper articles to set off the humor.

Essentially, reading outside your genre can make you aware of what your niche tone is and how to best highlight it by incorporating others. You might not make a complete switch, but your writing will most likely become more nuanced, and therefore higher quality.

3. Reading Outside Your Genre Can Teach You How to Hook a Reader Instantly

When I first started reading Brisbee’s pieces, it was because I was immediately intrigued by the headlines. Being a baseball fan, titles like “The only correct Hall of Fame ballot,” “The Yankees acquired a goblin, and they don’t care,” and “The Giants’ fake offseason of 2015-2016” grab me right away. (If you’re not as into the MLB as I am, I totally understand your potential lack of interest.)

Titling pieces is always tricky, especially since I write long-ish pieces about my personal life or fictional characters. I want to settle on something interesting, yet mysterious, yet sellable — and often that’s the worst possible strategy. I write for online publications that rely on clickable titles to attract readers and generate revenue, so why do my writing a disservice by giving it a less-than-eye-catching title? Brisbee taught me to get to the point of a piece with its title, and to do so in a way that makes not clicking impossible.

What can other writers learn?: Reading outside of your genre opens your eyes to the number of ways that people sell their writing through titles and ledes alone. If you write books, read the titles of “clickbait” articles. They rely solely on catchy titles to draw people in, so why not use their expertise? If you write poetry, look to newspapers. They measure their pieces in inches, and are (let’s face it) a dying industry. That sort of intensity can do wonders for the name of a poem. If you’re working on something scholarly, see what the top titles are in memoir. The personal connection aspect might help draw in new readership.

Reading outside your genre allows you to grow as a writer in the same way travelling helps you to grow as a person. If you’re never exposed to new and different things, you’ll continue to churn out the same sort of writing as every other poet, essayist, blogger, novelist, or reporter, and who wants to do that? Not this girl. And, I’m guessing, not you.

Images: Westend61/Westend61/Getty Images; Giphy (5)