“All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one.”– Walter Benjamin
“Stick to one genre of writing” seems like decent advice, on the surface. After all, why try to do ten things when you can focus on doing one really well? But, like so much well-intentioned but ultimately bad writing advice, I think “pick a genre and stick to it” is overly prescriptive and unnecessarily limiting.
(It’s also why I hate being asked “what do you write about?” because the answer isn’t one thing.)
Mixing it up helps you learn what you’re good at
I always knew I wanted to be a fiction writer. But I’m still so grateful my creative writing degree encouraged us to experiment with poetry, creative non-fiction, screenwriting, writing for the stage, and more. Through that experienced I learned what I definitely am (a fiction writer,) what I definitely am not (a poet,) and what I could be (a journalist.)
You might try out a genre or style, decide you don’t like it, and never write it in again. But then again, you might try one and realise it’s the perfect match for you. You might also discover hidden talents you had no idea you possessed. Putting yourself rigidly in a box limits you freedom to spread your creative wings.
Experimenting with genres makes you better at your main genre
As a writer, every single thing you write will teach you something about writing. This includes – perhaps even especially includes – when you step out of your comfort zone and write something completely different. You might return to your main genre eventually, but immersing yourself in another, even if just for a little while, will inevitably teach you something that will make you a better writer overall.
But what about publishers?
It’s true that if you get signed with a traditional publisher, they’re likely to want you to produce more work in the same or similar genre. That’s what a two-book or three-book deal is for. But the idea that once you’ve published one thing you’ll be typecast for life just doesn’t really hold true any more.
It’s widely understood that journalists sometimes become novelists and vice versa, that someone previously known for gritty crime might want to write a fluffy romance, and that someone who writes books for children might like to write for adults occasionally. It’s not that big a deal. All any publisher wants to know is that you can write and that your ideas are good.
Already published and wanting to write in a different genre? You can always use a different pen name! Just ask Anne Rice/Anne Rampling/A.N. Roquelaire, Agatha Christie/Mary Westmacott, and Joyce Carol Oates/Rosamond Smith (among many others).
Have you experimented with a different genre of writing?
So no, you don’t ncessarily need to choose between fantasy, sci-fi, crime, or literary fiction. You don’t even need to choose between being a fiction writer, a poet, a screenwriter, or a journalist. If you want to mix it up, go for it! It’ll make you a better writer in the long run.
Have you stepped away from your main genre or branched out into something else? Or maybe you eschew the idea of genre altogether and just write what feels right to you. Let me know!