Friday, October 28, 2011

Kinds of Writers and Their Advice

One of the implications of quantum mechanics that writers have played with is the notion that there are universes in which every possibility is played out. I've heard the notion expressed as a root universe that buds into two new universes when it reaches a decision point.

Whether the real universe behaves this way or not, the writing universe seems to have split several times, and seems to be in the process of doing so again.

What do I mean?

If we don't count business writing and academic writing (about subjects other than writing), there are three writing universes for fiction:


The universe of professional writing is spread among the far-flung universities and MFA programs. A Slate article characterized this world as a kind of academic patronage for writers (where publishing is only a step on the way to the real goal of tenure for teaching writing).

Professional comes from profession, which comes from profess. The modern sense of the words, "profession," and, "professional," is tied up in notions of highly-trained--and highly-paid--specialists. With that sense, we lose sight of the root verb, "to profess," which means to espouse a body of knowledge and practice. Professing is also associated with the old, clerical notion of a calling.
Many writers aspire to be professional in the modern, highly-paid sense of the term, but go about their task more in the old sense of something to profess: literature is a calling, with commandments and a canon.


The universe of commercial writing orbits New York City. (The cynical might say that New York is the black hole at the center of that universe.) This universe is all about publishing, and advances, and royalties.

Commercial, of course, comes from, "commerce," i.e., business. The commercial writer is all about business: What are the trends? Where's the market? What are editors buying? I've heard several people say that unpublished writers talk about books, published authors talk about money.

Electronic Frontiers

There was a time when the distinction between the professional and commercial writer came down to labels like, "literary," and, "commercial." Writers in both universes had to squeeze through the same funnel because the only way to reach a large audience was through the distribution system controlled by the publishers.

We're now entering a new universe (or perhaps a hyperspace) of writing in the interwebs where it's possible to publish your message to the world by pushing a button. Compared to the older two universes, with their fairly well defined paths of advancement, this strange new universe is part of a larger reputation economy.


I've painted with a broad brush to characterize the universes of fiction writer. In doing so, I've surely missed a host of important details and qualifications. Even so, when you compare the structures of each universe, it becomes clear that the path to success in each one is different than the others.

What that means, in practical terms, is that when someone gives you writing advice you need to take the universe they inhabit--and the one you inhabit--into account. It's not that the advice is mutually exclusive--or that a writer can't exist in multiple universes--but that each context has different priorities. For example, a commercial rule like, "dive right into the action of the story," isn't as important in a professional story.

It's easy to see the writing world as a monoculture. But you'll be happier--and do a better job of finding adaptive strategies--if you think instead of a multi-verse teaming with variations.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

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