Friday, October 9, 2009

A Writer's Hierarchy of Writing Genres

I attended Wordstock at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario last weekend. I've always been eclectic in my interests, and do a bit of this and that. I am a corporate and magazine writer, a wanna be kid lit writer, a wanna be novelist and a lover of words. I have been a contract writer, an academic writer and a government risk-assessment paper writer. I am not, nor have I ever considered myself a journalist.

Journalists, to my mind, are more immediate, more facts and figures, and often, more courageous than I will ever be. You will never catch me standing in a war zone reporting on an important, minute by minute event, or sitting in a courtroom reporting and analyzing the trial. It's not the kind of writer I am, nor is it the kind of writer that I want to be. I couldn't ask someone who has just lost their family how they feel. I admire journalists; I just don't consider myself one.

It's a funny thing, this writing profession. There are many different types of writing, and there is a subtle hierarchy, or at least there appears to be one. Non-fiction writers consider many fiction writers to be hacks or lucky, although I suspect many of us harbour fiction desires. I know I certainly do. I was amazed at the vitriol that Dan Brown's, Stephenie Meyer's and JK Rowlings' books have been met with in the non-fiction sector. Maybe there are some grammatical and constructional short comings, but they are a darn good read and in the case of Meyer and Rowlings, my mind boggles at the depth of character development. I will be reading Dan Brown's latest book when I save enough pennies to buy it.

I sat in a session at Wordstock that had a few magazine writers and the rest were journalists. They way we approached a story and research could not have been more diametrically different. While the mag writers would be busy transcribing interviews, organizing notes and planning the drafts, journalists had gotten the quote, filed a story and gone out for a beer. We looked at each other like we were crazy. Both Mag and journalists write and tell stories but one approach was alien to the other.

It got me thinking about the different types of writer and how we view each other.

So here's my own version of the writer's hierarchy. At one time or another I have been all and continue to be some of these. This is done tongue in cheek and with complete respect and affection to my peers in other genres. Hopefully I will offend no one by offending everyone equally:

1. Top of the food chain: Academic Writers

Academic writers are the top of the writing food chain. They do serious work, they do serious research and write about serious things. (they may or may not be paid serious money, seriously) So serious, in fact, that no one outside their own discipline (and sometimes within it) can make heads or tails of what they are saying. Of course, no one wants to admit that they don't understand the writing. (It's kind of like modern art-no one wants to admit they don't get the painting so they nod and say something like "what an interesting composition.) Unless they teach (shudder) Women's Studies, English, Media Studies, or some other fluffy arts program academic writers remain at the top of the writing food chain, secure in the knowledge that they will not be challenged because no one understands what they've said anyway. (and just to be clear, I hold a MA in Political Science with a specialty in Canadian Government and Business-Government Relations)

2. Not far behind: Technical Writers

Technical writers are a close second to academics. They write textbooks, manuals and handbooks and enjoy it. They talk a strange language peppered with words like Visio, screen grab, xml, info-mapping, decision trees and text boxes. They are detail-oriented and genuinely care whether the egg or the chicken came first because it could impact the decision tree graph. Technical writers get excited over the minutiae. Why use words when a bar graph will do?
(I am a geek who likes writing handbooks and position papers)

3. Corporate Writing

Corporate writers and trainers can command rates of $100+ an hour. Brochures, websites, client correspondence, annual reports-the money is in corporate writing. Now granted, you have to make a CEO who is an actuary look humble, compassionate and aware of something other than the bottom line, but the money is good and the gigs tend to be steady. It may not be as exciting as writing about pets and babies, but it certainly pays much better.

4. Magazine Writers and Journalists

Magazine writers and journalists write informational pieces, current events, political analysis, how-to articles and many other things that are the bread and butter of the media and print news world, and increasingly, the web. While the approach may be different-journalists often do not have the luxury of a 3 week deadline, the approach is the same: investigate, interview and inform. It's much harder to write a good 200 word article. Unfortunately, pay rates do not reflect the hours of research, background, sources and interviews that are required to create the finished product.

5-Marketing/Advertising Writers

Marketing and advertising copywriters make things look interesting, compelling and entice people to buy something. I spent many hours when I worked in compliance taking out all the pretty marketing claims that, unfortunately were against insurance legislative rules in most of Canada. Because of this propensity to pare down the fluffy marketing stuff, I have to work really hard at writing fluffy marketing stuff...To some people it's easy peasy. I am not one of those people. I'm far too honest to be a good advertising copywriter, although I'm learning. I have nothing but respect and admiration for good marketing copy writers.

6-Fiction Writers

Fiction writers live in an alternate dimension from non-fiction writers. They create worlds and characters that take over plots, refuse to speak planned dialogue, and argue incessantly with their writer-creators. If successful, they score huge book deals, have their books made into movies and end up on The View or on Oprah's book club. Their books get banned, debated, discussed, analyzed and translated. Their characters may become part of the zeitgeist of a period, and their books may become the "must read" of the moment. Most non-fiction writers harbour dreams of a best selling novel but hide the envy behind derision for sentence structure, run-on sentences, dangling particles, serial commas and verb-article agreement.

Romance writers and children's writers are a special subset of fiction writers. I rediscovered romance writing, and has it come a long way from heaving bosoms. I'd like to try to write romance, but I suspect I'm too Catholic and straight-laced. I might be able to write it, but I'd giggle like a 6th grader the whole time. As far as kidlit goes, everyone thinks they can write for children...until they try. Picture books are harder than they seem. Been there, done that, amassing the rejects.

So there's my writers' hierarchy. Where do you fit? How would you order it?


Janet Jarrell said...

This entire post made me smile - I relate well to this. I was recently at the Kingston Writersfest and met with some very inspiring writers. I was a bit star struck and it really made me think about where am I in this pecking order?

I think it was humbling and that isn't too entirely bad - I'll just keep working at what I love to do...

joanne carnegie said...

I find your hierarchy entertaining, but I don't agree with placing academic writers at the top of the totem pole. I don't know anyone who admires academic writers! From where I sit, the most praise-worthy writers are those who are the most attuned to their audience.

Divawrites said...

Valid point, Joanne. I think Academic writers see themselves as the top of the food chain, and I've edited some of their papers. Like any writer, some academics are wonderful writers, and others, not so much...

This was completely tongue in cheek, biased and my ramblings!

Lauren said...

I liked the hierarchy! I think if you asked most fiction writers, though, they'd put themselves at the top. Especially if we're talking potential to make money (which didn't factor into your list, and would make for a very interesting secondary list).

Not all marketing copy is fluffy and/or dishonest. Those Slimy Marketing Types give the rest of us a bad name. :)