Episode 19: Risk Management


If you are an investor, you probably know your risk tolerance. For me, I prefer to stick with a long-term investment strategy with lower immediate yields (mainly because I’m young enough to wait). When it comes to writing, however, my tolerance is much higher, and this has gotten me into quite a bit of trouble over the years.

Let me start out by saying that I think every writer should take risks. Break conventions, move past the bounds of formal writing on occasion, throw in a twist at the end, and just have fun with what you’re doing. But—and this is a big one—make sure you are comfortable with the structure of a particular style of writing before you branch out.

When I first began writing poetry, I jumped immediately into the free-for-all mode of versification with staccato angry words (I know I’m not the only one, so no sniggering). Many months went by in that fashion, until I took up with Wordsworth, Byron, and Keats. They taught me that form is not anathema to the written word. So, during my romance with the Romantics, I became an apprentice to meter, rhyme, and formalism. And what a great apprenticeship it was. By the time I moved back to the “modern” free verse approach (which is really not modern at all), I found that the former structure taught me how to live without it. I took away the scaffolding, if you will, and found a sturdy building underneath.

When you take any risk in life, I hope that you stop to consider the options, weigh the results, and stick the course. Writing is the same way. Before moving beyond the boundaries, make sure you know where the boundaries are and how they work. I’m not saying you have to spend many months writing with a straitjacket on, but I am saying that becoming familiar with the rules (the norm) helps you to appreciate the risks that you’re taking.

Now that I’ve lectured, let’s take a look at some risks that you might consider:

  • Second person: If you are interested in experimenting with short stories, I’ve found that second person (e.g., “You walk out into the cold air”) can really help you grow as a writer. It’s tough to sustain a second-person narrative, and you really have to think your way through.
  • First person plural: This one may be even more difficult, since your narrators are a collective group, but it’s an interesting challenge that we certainly recommend.
  • Twisted ending: If you’ve seen The Sixth Sense, you know what this is. You set the reader up for an expected outcome, and then rip it away at the last moment. To do this effectively, though, you must make sure that you leave enough clues throughout and revisit them to show how they work the way the reader didn’t expect.

And there are thousands of other risks you could take in every type of writing. Risk in writing is good—especially personal writing, since you have nothing to lose. If you have some risks you’d like to share, leave them in the comments.

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