Whatever your chosen format as an author – novels, short stories, essays, etc. – trying your hand at others is an excellent writing exercise. Here are six writing formats to consider.
If you are an author accustomed to writing in one genre, having a go at another can yield useful insights. In the same vein, if you prefer one format, say novels, trying other writing formats, such as short stories, can recalibrate your creative compass and help improve your main focus format.
Are you far enough along in your writing career to know what length work you excel at most? Trying a few different formats can be helpful and offer great practice if you want to build up to a book-length project.
If you are set on writing your first book, even a brief foray into shorter format projects can be useful. Writing a great book is not at all about the number of words with which you fill your pages. It’s about packing a punch with those words and making readers wish there were more when they get to the last page.
One way to get a feel for how to pack a punch is to experiment with shorter forms of writing. You have no extra words in which to develop characters, unnecessary subplots, or long passages dedicated to atmospheric descriptions of setting. You have no room for tangents.
Especially if it’s not your primary format, just do some “short-work” as throwaways or exercises. They can be as short as six words – how hard could that be?
1. Six Word Story
What does it take to pack in meaning? Try writing a six word story. Getting across a point in so few words is a real challenge. While difficult, shorter can mean you can try more. The ability to experiment mentally like this is invaluable.
In this fun format you literally only have six words to work with. Along with your select words, you can use punctuation to its best advantage. This is a very special format that takes a lot of skill. Six-word stories are a lot harder than you think to write. You have to set the stage for a story in fewer words than the length of most sentences.
You need a beginning, middle, end, and ideally a lot of tension. You need to set up and resolve conflict – at least you do to create a memorable six word story. If you want to read some good samples, go to the Six Word Stories website. Even if you don’t write any yourself, reading a bunch of them can hit home for what works and what doesn’t. Any of these stories could be the most distilled versions of books – like yours.
Can you describe your book in six words?
Writing poems is notoriously difficult. Writing poetic prose is almost as taxing. It’s all about word choice, arresting concepts, and few lines.
Are you one for straightforward language that gets the job done, or are you more of a poet at heart in your choice of words? Poetic prose is painstaking to write, and luckily not everyone needs to. Trying a bit of poetry is one way to see the other extreme if you don’t usually work there.
Trying to convey an idea through enriched word choices, no glue words, and a metaphoric narrative that packs an emotional punch can give you a new view on writing the text of your book.
A good poem has a takeaway message. It leaves a wafting emotion in its wake. Poems are not just beautiful, touching, or evocative strings of words. A memorable poem is a verbally expressed concept full of images.
Can a concept in your book be recast as a poem? Do you have parts of your book that offer potential material for poems? That is likely a good thing.
3. Flash Fiction
Flash Fiction lives on the short end of the short story spectrum, defined as “short short stories” or stories between 50 and 2,000 words (some definitions even list it as low as 1,000 words maximum). While still well short of a book, here you can at least use complete sentences in prose format.
Nothing hones your sense of logical flow and word choice than trying to pack a complete story into so few words. You need to get across just the essence to make it work.
If you’ve tried to write something this short, you know how much creative information-packing you need to do to produce anything worth reading. You have to be super selective in choosing what ground to cover. You still need a start, middle, and ending, each of which sucks away your word count.
Can you get away with just hints at backstory? Can you let the reader fill in much of the detail? Try chopping down one of the scenes in your book into a short story. Does it work? How might you change it? Do you have a series of short stories in your book or are they all tightly linked together, as a good plot should be?
4. Short Story
A short story has more breathing room than flash fiction, but is essentially the same, just longer. Writing a short story hones the skill of knowing where to dip in and out of a storyline. In a short story you really only have room for one key piece of the action. You might find your book idea isn’t weighty enough to carry that big a word count, but honed down, the idea makes a beautiful short story.
Many writers notoriously start with the short story format. Steven King did, as did Ray Bradbury, and look where it took them. The arc of a short story is easier to keep in your head.
A short story is also good to give to beta readers for feedback. It’s less daunting than a request to read a book draft. It’s also much easier to write a number of short story drafts just as an exercise. Or you can write, polish, and re-polish in the same amount of time it might take you to look over just one chapter in your book.
5. News Article
You might question why fiction writers should try to write non-fiction (or vice versa), but the value of doing it just once is in the comparison of styles. Having to tell a factual story is a very different from making one up. Getting the feel of working exclusively with facts can help a fiction writer develop complete details when creating a fictional environment. Plus, today’s good news articles have a narrative feel. They often focus on a particular person or place, and the use of creative non-fiction is growing.
Another benefit of writing a news article is it forces you to fill in the “five Ws and one H.” This is of course the “Who, What, What, When, Where, and How” of your story. Drop any one of them and you leave a pit for the reader to fall into. While this is crucial in non-fiction, where your aim is to get across the facts, the same holds true in fiction. Though, fiction writers sometimes purposely hold back on one or more of the Ws or your H. Doing so in an artistic manner can be exactly what gives your plot its beauty and intrigue.
You’ll also be forced to flip your usual fiction writing style to put a one sentence summary, or lede (or lead) at the top of your article. Getting these right and still easy to read is an art form in and of itself. It’s basically your article in one sentence, in case your reader gets called away before they digest the whole article.
Can you write a lede for your book?
6. Opinion Piece
This kind of writing forces you to find (and use) your voice. Opinions are what you want in your books. All your characters will need them, in their own flavors, and the overall book will have a feel to it that is an outreach of your beliefs as an author.
What do you think? What message do you want to send your reader? An opinion piece must be grounded on facts, but the message is all yours to sculpt. In that sense, they are the opposite of news pieces. Instead of withholding your opinion, you are making it the main show.
An opinion piece should be novel, or at least presented in a novel fashion, that is personal to you and not derivative of anyone else’s thinking. It must exhibit original thinking, just like a book or any piece of fiction.
So get to it, you’ve got some writing to do.
Poetry As A Writing Exercise
A Fun Way To Build Your Writing Muscles
Writing Intriguing Short Stories
Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules For Writing A Short Story
Tightening Your Story’s Cause And Effect Chain With “And So”