Have you ever written something that you were proud of, then immediately realized how similar it was to something else you’d already written? Most writers, no matter how experienced, experience this sort of writer’s block at some point their careers. Sometimes, it can be important to take risks with your writing and break the mold to make your writing work stand out from the crowd.
In today’s writing industry, it’s easy to fall into the habit of using familiar patterns and structures time and again. While these habits can be useful when starting out as a writer, over time you may find that your writing becomes too predictable. Thing is, predictable writing is not bad under the right circumstances. In fact, many fiction and non-fiction writers alike deem some predictability is necessary part of a satisfying read.
When is predictable writing good?
Many writers use formulaic writing techniques to help readers move through an article or even an entire book comfortably. In fiction, if every plot twist came out of nowhere, or if every character changed personalities at random points in their lives, most readers would grow frustrated with reading. Therefore, the question is not whether you should rely on predictable writing techniques at all; it’s whether you have become too reliant on them.
Writers spend years honing our craft, working hard to develop the skills that separate good writers from great ones. You can read countless books and articles, take writing classes, and even work as an intern in the marketing department of a publishing company. All you will learn is what has worked, not necessarily what will work.
Interestingly, especially in business, learning to write copy that attracts customers and persuades them to take action often involves introducing some sort of unpredictability. Using metaphors in your work, for example, can help readers will pick up on the fact that you’re onto something important. Whenever you mention something in an odd way, readers will pay more attention. But, if you keep writing copy the same way for years at a time, it will eventually stop performing if you don’t switch up your methods.
How can I tell my writing has become too predictable?
Consider your own writing style for a moment. Do you tend to go for lyrical prose or stick with a straightforward storytelling method? Are you empathetic or cold and aloof as a narrator? The consistent manner in which you write can give your readers a sense of predictability, so make sure you’re not falling into a pattern.
There are other ways your writing could become predictable even if your writing style is not. Have you considered how any noticeable trends throughout your work could cause predictability? Sure, every writer uses certain words over and over again, but there should be no discernible patterns; variety is key. This applies to syntax, too; are you using sentence fragments more often than complete sentences?
Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, writing style is useful in helping us to flesh out what we want to say. But, you do need to occasionally keep readers guessing somewhat, especially when you’re trying to tell a compelling story or difficult with a complicated topic. This is why it’s occasionally necessary to break the mold with your writing to shake readers from their complacency.
How do you break the mold with your writing?
The easiest way to achieve predictability is by falling into a predictable rhythm. Some writers naturally find themselves relying on certain writing habits over and over again, like starting every work day with five pages of writing, or always proofreading at night before bed. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; there are some great reasons for sticking with what works.
However, your writing will grow stale quickly if you don’t break out of your comfort zone every once in a while. Try taking risks when it comes to structure, tone, or subject matter. Be sure to always mix up your routine by making changes that can affect everything from your daily word count goals all the way down to which shirt you wear when you sit down at your desk. Yes, even the smallest changes in routine can affect your writing.
In my own writing career, I’ve always found ways to introduce some chaos into my process. Many times when I set myself to writing, I’ll find myself rambling on for many pages, getting down as many ideas as I can within half an hour. This has always been a useful method for me to sift through my thought process and find ideas that strike me as unpredictable. Where I can go wrong is realize that I’ve produced an unfocused mess with no useful ideas to go on for an actual piece.
Of course, some writers find they are at their best by coming up with ideas in a deliberate and structured manner. There’s nothing wrong with this, especially if you need to be a veritable fountain of good ideas to keep your content engine running.
When Should Your Writing Not Be Too Predictable?
In a way, I’ve often felt like a fiction writer writing primarily non-fiction. I always want to keep the reader guessing. In fact, when I write, the more unpredictable the course of my work takes, the better the end result can be. But, in a world in which answer-driven content has become the most sought after, I feel like a bit of a dinosaur. Sometimes, rather than simply answering the question people want answered, I try to lead people on and help them to answer questions they never thought to ask.
While doing this is an honest goal, predictable writing still has its time and place. This is especially true in storytelling. But, even when it comes to answer-driven article writing, I still find myself greatly uninspired reading content attempting to answer the same questions over and over. You can find yourself at a point where taking a fresh perspective on something becomes immensely hard to do. That’s when injecting some unpredictability can come in handy, and it can move conversation forward.
Sure, it can be risky to not have a plan for your writing. Many writers find it ludicrous to function without operating with an outline. Yet, this very plunge into madness is where I’ve come up with some of my best ideas. Yes, sometimes the words go nowhere useful, but this happens even when you’re chronically obsessed with outlines. Even if you’re one of those writers who lives by their practiced methods, sometimes you just need to let loose.
It can be overwhelming to see the sheer volume which unbridled brainstorming can produce. Also, it’s often tricky to pare down a stream of consciousness into anything tangible. But, if you edit it all down to the essence of each idea as it appears, you learn how unpredictable your own mind can be.
Readers Expect Things to Be Predictable, So I Prefer My Writing to Be Unpredictable
The trap you don’t want to fall into as a writer is to have a topic and basically just comment on it. You’ll find that sort of writing process becomes rather stale. There’s no wrong with being strictly informational and coming to an obvious conclusion if you’re writing about something technical. But, that sort of writing just isn’t for me; I need to put a fresh take on whatever I’m writing about.
As a freelance writer for over a decade, I often found myself restricted to focusing on a specific topic from a certain angle. Whenever you fall into these patterns of being assigned to writing very predictable content, you stop trying to dance around the edges trying to make new connections. Essentially, my career became about writing for search engine algorithms and the results, while technically sound, felt uninspired to me. Sure, you don’t want to have your writing become a hot mess of nonsense; but, if you’re unhappy with where your writing is at right now, it can sometimes be better to not have just written it at all.
Being straight and to the point obviously has its place, and I still write pieces that way when it suits the purpose. Still, I feel most comfortable with my writing when it can make readers unsure of exactly where I’m going. But, there’s a delicate balance of losing your reader in confusion and making them think through why you’re going in the direction that you are. One of the beauties of written communication is that ten people can read exactly the same words, yet come to ten completely different conclusions. It’s also one of the shortfalls and one of the major limitations. No human communication is perfect. Nor do I think it ever should be.
Still, if you find your writing growing too stale and predictable, it’s high time you stop and change things up a bit with your process. Sure, if you let the randomness of life’s ebbs and flow dictate where you go with your writing sessions, you may find yourself in some uncomfortable places. As moods shift and opinions waver, though, it’s possible to stay the course while still having a few twists and turns thrown into the journey. While you can’t break the mold with everything you write, knowing when to be unpredictable can lead you to writing your next piece of cornerstone content.