Strategies for Shifting from Technical to Creative Writing

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Dear Sara,

I have read your wonderful website and am very stimulated. My career to this point has involved scientific writing, but I would like to shift to more creative writing and I'm finding the transition difficult.

What do you suggest?

 - Norman Earle Jr.

Dear Norman,

Thanks for your intriguing question, and kudos to you for heeding your inner call to take a new risk in your creative life! 

I do have four ideas for you that I hope will help you navigate this exciting transition.

IDEA #1.  Assume it Will Be Difficult

The first and most important element of a transition from scientific to creative writing is to jettison any expectation that it SHOULD be easy.  

In fact, it strikes me that transitioning from scientific or technical writing to creative writing is kind of like moving to Liverpool, England after growing up in California…your main disadvantage may be an expectation of commonality where there is actually tremendous difference. 

Why Poor Dan Went Home

If our Californian (let’s call him Dan) arrives in Liverpool thinking, “I speak English, they speak English, no problemo!” poor Dan is in for a very rough ride.  He will not only be frustrated as he tries to communicate in this new, non-native version of his native tongue, but on top of that he’ll be confused and discouraged by his frustration itself, having come to the adventure with an expectation of ease.  He might even translate this disjuncture into the thought “This should be easy, yet I’m finding it difficult.  Dude, there must be something wrong with me.” 

And - here's the rub - once Dan sees the disjuncture between his expectation of ease and the reality of challenge as a personal failing…well it is not a far leap from “there must be something wrong with me” to “I guess I should give up,” followed by a mopey, defeated return flight home to more familiar shores.

Be Like Vlad

Compare Dan’s experience to our friend Vlad’s.  When Vlad relocated to Liverpool from his native Russia, he arrived with no illusions of ease – he assumed it would take considerable time and hard work to learn to communicate like a Liverpudlian.  Possessed of this clarity about the scope of the challenge before him, he simply set about learning the ropes, unburdened by an expectation of immediate success.  When Vlad encountered confusion and frustration, he thought to himself, "wow, this is a big challenge, just as I expected" and continued on until he’d mastered the new language.

Be like Vlad, prepared for a challenge, and you’ll save yourself the pitfall of self-recrimination and perceived failure that brought poor Dan down.

IDEA #2:  Cherish Your Assets

So, the transition from scientific to creative writing will be a genuine challenge.  So what?  You’ve got a lot of skills and strengths to build on – in fact, let’s make a list of them!  As an experienced science writer:

  • You are used to showing up, sitting in a chair and stringing words into sentences.  This is a huge lesson and set of work habits that you won’t need to relearn.
  • You are a trained observer; you know how to objectively witness events and interactions with a clear eye and a curious mind.
  • You also know that observable phenomena are sometimes important clues to underlying processes that cannot be visually perceived.
  • You likely have experience describing concrete phenomena in clear detail. 
  • Depending on the type of science writer you have been, you may also have a good sense of narrative – you’ve likely noticed that papers that tell a story tend to get read and cited more than those that “simply report.”

What other assets do you bring to creative writing?  Keep going and list everything you can think of that you are bringing to the challenge of this transition.

IDEA #3:  Strengthen Some Key Muscles

All of these assets are going to be great strengths to build on, AND you’re going to need to exercise some new muscles as you move into the challenges of creating imagined worlds and populating them with characters that readers connect to and care about. 

Assuming that your creative writing aspirations involve crafting stories populated by humans (rather than, say, microbes), here are a few muscles I’d encourage you to begin working first:

1.   Exercise Your Powers of Invention.  Let’s face it, on the spectrum from literal to imaginative thought, scientific writing holds down the literal end pretty squarely.  It will take some time and practice to learn to use reality as a mere jumping off point for your imagination.  How do you cultivate your imagination so that you, like Lewis Carroll’s White Queen, can claim to have “believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”?  

Something to try:  There are a raft of different imagination-stretching exercises you might try – here’s a simple one to start with:  start by writing a bunch of different nouns on little slips of paper and throw them in a hat.  Pick out three random nouns (e.g. toothpaste, cellphone, suitcase) and set a timer for 20 minutes.  For the next 20 minutes, write a scene or sketch a storyline for a character that involves those three objects.  Maybe a young woman on a journey opens her suitcase to discover that all her clothes are covered in exploded toothpaste.  She grabs her cellphone to call….who?  Or maybe there’s a society somewhere in the universe where toothpaste is currency and a businessman is forced to trade his last tube for a suitcase in which to carry the enormous cellphone he needs to take on his intergalactic space travels…

2.  Sharpen your listening ear.  One of the observable features of human interaction that offers a wealth of clues about motivations and internal states is language.  Practice paying attention to human speech.  What do people really say to one another?  How do they communicate?  What does a real conversation sound like? 

Something to try:  Take yourself to a coffee shop with a journal or lap top.  Make like an ethnographer and simply capture every bit of overheard conversation you can manage to jot down.  (later, you might use one of your snippets of overheard dialogue in place of three nouns as a starting point for one of your 20 minute muscle-building activities.)

3. Tune into the subjective dimension.  Good story-telling seems to require tapping into the teeming mass of subjective reality that churns below the surface of the observable phenomena of human life.  Underneath the observable manners, habits, gestures, and possessions seethes a complex web of emotions, memories, desires and fears – the stuff of our inner lives. 

Something to try:  There’s no better place to begin studying the subjective than with your own inner life!  Start with an object or photograph from your personal space that evokes memories for you.  Set a timer for 20 minutes, and do some freewriting about the emotional connections you feel with that object.  What memories does this thing conjure?  What are the inner states – the emotions, fears, longings - you associate with this thing or picture?   Once you’ve practiced surfacing your own well of subjective response – you can begin trying the same exercise with imagined characters.  Let's say you pick an old blue hat – what does your character associate with the hat?  How is it connected to the worst day of her life?  What desire was crushed in her the day she last wore it?

To Recap:

1.  Expect this transition to be difficult, and don’t waste a bit of your precious energy feeling you’ve failed just because it seems hard.  This is because it IS hard, not because you are not good at it.

2.  Assess and honor the assets you bring to the table - appreciate what you’ve already got!

3.  Three key new muscles to begin strengthening as you move into the realm of creative writing include:  your powers of imagination, your listening ear, and your awareness of the subjective dimension.

Finally, I would add a very important fourth suggestion:  get support!  Seek out a local or online writing class, read some of the many wonderful books on crafting good stories, read widely in the kind of writing you aspire to, and find whatever it is that encourages you and keeps you moving in the direction of your creative aspirations! 

 - Sara

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