Training to Become a Better Writer, Part 2

I mentioned the Specificity Principle in an earlier post. Whatever you want to get better at, you need to do it and do it often. Want to get better at writing? Write. Want to get better at running? Run. And so on.

Another powerful principle that goes hand in hand with that is Cross-Training. In sports, this is training in a different sport other than the one the athlete competes in. Not only that, the training is complementary to the primary sport: It might train muscles that lack attention, or target coordination or strength in a different way than the primary sport.

Some of you might be thinking that this goes against my last post about the Specificity Principle. Think of it like this: The Specificity Principle is foundational. Cross-Training is supplemental. Once you’ve moved into the intermediate proficiency of your craft it’s time to start supplementing your training.

Growing up as a competitive swimmer, we often did dryland exercises like calisthenics, weight lifting and yoga to bolster our strength and flexibility to a greater degree than we could with swimming alone. However, only our intermediate and advanced swimmers did dryland. Our beginner swimmers simply needed to focus on swimming.

Runners often choose biking and swimming as cross-training alternatives because they are both challenging cardiovascular exercises, but also low impact–that way they can get a workout in and give their shins and joints a break.

Weight lifting and calisthenics are used as cross-training for most sports because they can help athletes grow stronger than they would solely on the field or on the track. They also help balance out muscle groups that get neglected (very similar to the physical side of occupational therapy).

Cross-Training is a powerful tool for athletes, but carries over into everyday wellness and also into creative endeavors. Artists can take advantage of this by branching out from their usual discipline for a day.

For all of us writers, an easy way to cross-train is to write in another genre than your own. If you’re used to writing science fiction, try writing horror, nonfiction, or romance. If you primarily write novels, try your hand at some short fiction poetry or a script. Don’t just try it, make it a part of your weekly writing routine.

You can go even further by branching out into other forms of art. Try drawing a picture of a scene that you’re stuck on or a character that you haven’t quite fleshed out. Even if you can’t draw well, think about which details you would need to convey the emotions of the characters, the scene, or the theme. Try imagining yourself as a character, like an actor in a play. Read the dialogue aloud and act out the scene. Search for music that would fit the scene or that your character would listen to.

When I started writing fiction I dove right into the deep end and started with novel-length ideas and stories. I’ve become more proficient as time went on, but my descriptions always lacked. On bad days, my writing would reek of white-room syndrome and read like a script.

Writing short stories helped me turn a corner in my fiction, especially in regard to description. Because of their length, there can’t be any wasted words in a short story. I couldn’t wait to drip-feed descriptions and details and world-building–I had to be up front and direct. Short stories force you to be very descriptive, yet condensed. It was a completely different form than I was used to and helped me train a weak part of my writing.

Another exercise that I enjoy is taking a story and trying to figure out how it would play as a video game. It’s helped me tease apart how a character’s powers and abilities worked in-universe. It also helped me impose limitations on their powers. There’s no drama or struggle if your main character is overpowered and never struggles within the story. Likewise, video games don’t let you use your best abilities over and over. There are limitations, whether it’s limited by mana or by a cooldown timer. Does your character’s powers take a physical toll on them or does it take great focus (and zero distractions)? You can use similar video-game-logic to flesh out the rules of your word, whether it’s sci-fi, fantasy, horror or mystery.

Personally, even though I’m a novel-writer at heart, I still write short stories every week. It’s been so beneficial to my craft that it’s now a staple–just like dryland training used to be for my swimming.

In closing, Cross-Training is a powerful concept that many use to bust through training plateaus, break free of stagnation, and protect yourself from burnout. Add it to your arsenal as a writer or an artist and don’t be afraid to branch out and try new writing forms. Don’t be afraid to try new ways of thinking about your story and about your craft.

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