Friday, June 30, 2006

Thinking Outside the Box

When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, I had a graphic design professor who stressed the need to think "outside the box." Now, that is an overused and often abused cliche, but like most cliches, there is a ring of truth to it.

I belong to an online crit group. I had written something and wanted feedback, even though there are no immediate plans to do anything with the piece. I contacted the moderator since the submission was outside the concentration of the crit group; the group is for writers of children's nonfiction and this was an adult essay/short story. With permission, I posted my piece. Well, two of the members "got it." They understood what I was trying to get across through word choice and structure. The others, however, criticized it for lacking structure, being too loose. Someone even told me that it wouldn't work as an article. Well, duh, I said it was an essay or chapter in a book. If the piece didn't conform to their formulaic standards, it wouldn't work.

Though some in the crit group had legitimate criticisms, the entire experience reminded me of my college graphic design professor. The inability to break out of the box--to expand our boundaries, to leave our comfort zones--is not unique to that crit group. I think we all fall into that trap at one time or another. After all, we can feel safe there; it's tried and true; we've had success there before.

But, what happens when something forces us outside that safety zone? What if the market changes and your style of writing is no longer a hot commodity? What if your editor at the publishing house leaves and his replacement is not impressed with your work? What if your work--and you--become stagnant, no longer relevant?

But how do you start thinking outside the box? I'm still learning. One think the prof did was to have us take notes in a drawing book rather than a notebook. At first it seemed odd, but what difference does where you write make? Well, not being confined to lines can be amazingly freeing. Here are some other ideas I came up with:

1. If you're used to writing in one particular spot, go somewhere else for part of the writing day.
2. Change the font on your word processing program. Who says everything has to be the same size and in the same font and color. One caveat: I you're submitting your piece to a publisher or an editor, you might want to make them conform to industry standards. Changing the industry's way of thinking will take longer.
3. If you're used to writing nonfiction, try some fiction, and vice versa. This one I am trying. I can't say that writing fiction is easier or harder than the nonfiction I usually write, but it is an amazing break.
4. Tackle a writing topic you know nothing about. Learning is an incredible tool.
5. Write without using -ly adverbs.

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