Write It Now Part 26: writers aren’t one-trick ponies

One of my biggest lessons as a writer was the discovery that authors are only supposed to be capable of writing what they are known for. If they write something else, the idea goes, they can’t be any good.

"Hmmn...books. New fangled rubbish. They'll never replace scrolls, you know".
“Hmmn…books. New fangled rubbish. They’ll never replace scrolls, you know”.

It is, I suppose, how writers get seen from outside. Society classifies  and sub-classifies professions. Authors get labelled ‘novellists’, ‘short story writers’, ‘historians’, ‘railway enthusiasts’ or whatever, and that puts them in their box. Same logic as applies to any job, I guess.

I find myself relentlessly categorised – in terms of my supposed skill set and knowledge – around whatever my last book was. I’ve been called a ‘social historian’, ‘military historian’,  ‘aviation historian’ and so forth. If I write anything else, I find, I am criticised for working beyond what these people, who haven’t met me, insist my competence is supposed to be. Some critics, maliciously, even deny worth purely on that basis.

I never understood that. Apart from writing as a skill of its own I have a wide range of long-standing interests from astronomy and paleontology, evolutionary science, astrophysics, music, sociology, engineering, and the history by which I’m usually classified as a writer. It’s an interesting and wide world out there, and I like finding out about it. And then writing about it.

To me, that’s how it should be. Writers shouldn’t be one-trick ponies.

I think part of the problem is that, to non-writers and – I fear, even some writers – the writing itself is often viewed as secondary to subject expertise.

1197094932257185876johnny_automatic_books_svg_medWhereas I figure things work best the other way around. Writing is a skill of its own. And once mastered – made unconsciously part of your soul – it’s possible to focus on stuff being written about. A writer who has mastered writing could – and should – be able to turn their hand to any genre or field, because they know – or can quickly learn – how to shape their writing to suit.

The best examples I can think of are Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke – top-rate novellists and brilliant non-fiction authors, with output covering an eclectic range of subjects. Asimov especially.

The phenomenon is common in the arts. Musicians are often type-labelled by genre. Some don’t explore much beyond their niche. But some do – I’m thinking Frank Zappa in particular

Zappa did doowop, big-band jazz, funk, rock, reggae, modern orchestral, ‘switched on’ synth realisations of baroque music, musique concrete, ballet music, rock opera and Broadway style musical numbers. A colossal range of styles and genres. All of them spot on as examples of their kind.

The trick to it all is making sure your own voice comes through. Zappa did, musically. Can writers do it in their field? Sure.

Food for thought. Do you ever find yourself labelled as a ‘such-and-such’ writer?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Postscriptum, 14 July: Joanne Rowling has been unmasked as the author of a critically acclaimed detective novel, released under a pseudonym. Why? She was too well known as herself. Check out:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10178344/JK-Rowling-unmasked-as-author-of-acclamed-detective-novel.html Precisely the points I’ve been making. QED.

9 thoughts on “Write It Now Part 26: writers aren’t one-trick ponies

  1. I really need to get hold of some of Zappa’s music so I can know what you’re talking about 😉

    Another author I think of is John Grisham. Few people know that he has also published YA-fantasy novels.


    1. Zappa was incredible in every respect. Too easy to diss as a potty-mouth wild man of rock (which is how he was often received) – but conceptually he was worlds ahead of the rest of them. He ended up politicising himself, but in general his music was a fantastic expression of conceptualisation that, to me, writers can learn from. It’s a question of stepping back and feeling the shapes and patterns of his thinking. As a quick start, his autobiography is worth grabbing if you can find it – ‘The Real Frank Zappa Book’ – an exercise in writing-as-dada which was typical Zappa, and typically brilliant.


      1. Before I started reading your blog I had never heard of him. Don’t think he’s ever been popular in SA. But then, my parents listened to Roxette and BZN. Enough said.


  2. Right on point. People tend to bring down the work of art, cause it’s not what you’ve done before. And it just shouldn’t be. The writer should be able to write whatever comes to mind and not fear what the people will think. No one is 2D.

    Great article 🙂


  3. I haven’t had that issue as yet because I’m “too new to rate”. However, I am writing in several different genre’s and will continue to do so, at least for the time being.


  4. This concept walks hand-in-hand with the absurd idea that writers should only offer work in a single tight niche. Genres make me a little crazy (you’ve heard this before). This sort of skewed reasoning that people can only be singular subject-matter specialists is sadly restrictive to expression. Of course, it’s the folks who refuse to explore beyond the famiiar boundaries that lose out. If it weren’t for crossover interests, fascination with related materials, and personal curiosity, the world would lack a great many wonderful bits of music, art, and science. Dolts.


  5. I’ve written only one novel, but the others I have planned are not all in the same genre. I thought if I had skill as a writer, I would be able to write whatever. Maybe it would be better to write under a pseudonym when switching genres. My ego prefers to write under my own name.


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