Saturday, April 14, 2012

Which is better...generalist or learned specialist?

I've been pondering this for a while now: which is better for a writer of fiction, or poetry for that matter, to be, a generalist or a learned specialist?

Quite a few doctors and lawyers have turned to writing fiction, and I would consider them to be learned specialists. And they seem to be quite successful as writers: Steve Berry, Michael Creighton, Robin Cook, Frank G. Slaughter, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and many others. I'm sure that many successful authors were also generalists: Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and many others. Of course, I've done no study of this. I'm just speaking off the top of my head (I'm a generalist and don't have any special knowledge; I have a BA in English, I studied and obtained a certificate in computer programming, and I worked for a while on an MBA, before deciding that running corporations wasn't for me). I'm more of an autodidact and have read about almost every subject under the sun. I'm a jack of all trades and master of none.

It seems that being a learned specialist is valuable. If nothing else, her dedication and concentration on one subject for a number of years lays the foundation for the discipline necessary to be a writer. The subject of study perhaps doesn't have much bearing on it, just the fact that she's studied something assiduously for six, eight, ten years has prepared her for working on novels for long periods of time and seeing it through to the end. To me this is a distinct advantage.

As a generalist and autodidact, I wander from one subject to another, never mastering anything. Perhaps I just have a short attention span (and I do). Jumping around from one subject to another gives the illusion of being learned. I can talk about most anything up to a point, then I have to shut up. When confronted with a specialist, who doesn't need to b. s. anyone about his subject matter, and doesn't have to b. s. about subjects he knows nothing about, I must shut up and listen.

Does this mean it's better to be a learned specialist before turning to writing? I wonder. What do you think?


Jeff Hargett said...

I think there are advantages and disadvantages to both. I believe both are required and neither is in and of itself a license or limitation. (My $0.02 contribution.)

L.G.Smith said...

I do appreciate when a novelist has a specific area of expertise that they bring to the work. Their confidence shows, as they are able to do things with the subject matter that someone with a more limited knowledge might not conceive of.

That said, I am a mile wide and an inch deep in my understanding of most subjects. Haven't quite learned to keep my mouth shut yet though. :)

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Richard .. if we're not experts there's not a lot we can do about it - except start gathering knowledge, degrees and working in that field - a long probation.

I'm a generalist and sometimes find it challenging - but as I'm not writing a novel I don't worry about it (much) .. I need to work out a way forward for the future .. I keep mulling!

Just write - that's what writers do .. and because we're generalists perhaps our works won't be over detailed as some experts can give us ..

Good luck with your writing though .. cheers Hilary

Talli Roland said...

Wow, what a question. Personally, I think I'd rather be a generalist. I love learning new things and broadening my scope.

Tanya Reimer said...


What makes a generalist so important, is that they can take what the specialist knows and turn it into something everyone can relate too.

Seeing the ER from the point of view of a medic is very different than seeing it from the point of view of a patient. Both are important and fun and interesting and make wonderful stories. But I don't have to be a specialist to write in enough details to see the world as a patient. I just have to know a specialist who can make sure I got the details right. i am always asking my hubby how much a wound should bleed, and how much it would hurt. He then goes into intricate details that make my eyes glaze over, until finally, something he says clicks and THAT I can use.

What makes a specialist so important is the attention to details in their specialty. They have lived it and it's so common for them, they see the world differently than a generalist- as you pointed out. And when you read their stories you know these facts are plausible, and it makes the read that much more enjoyable.

Of course, even the best specialists, if they want to succeed, must at some point pull away and become a generalist. The doctor might need to learn about bullets and guns and crime scenes...and for that he will need other specialists.

Both are very valuable and target very different markets.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Both can work. I am a specialist in my field, but I can't say it lent anything extra to writing. Especially as perfectionism is a double-edged sword.

Lynda R Young said...

I agree that specialists have the advantage of learned discipline, but I also think anyone can learn it. I don't think it makes them better writers.

Valentina Hepburn said...

I guess it very much depends on the kind of book we want to write. Obviously there are readers out there for all genres of novels, so if a writer is good enough, will make it in that genre.
For me, the imagination and invention is key. I can't say I specialise in anything (agony aunt maybe), but I do have a vivid imagination which serves me well in my story telling. If I need to know anything specific, there is so much information out there to be researched. A really good question, Richard.

Clarissa Draper said...

While I like to read that a lawyer has written a work of law fiction or a doctor has written a novel of medical fiction, I don't think it really matters. I love Agatha Christie, who had a knowledge of laboratories and chemicals, however it's her plots that keep me coming back.

Emily R. King said...

I've often wondered this. I haven't specialized in one thing, but have felt the pressure to do so. I like to be diverse, but that's because it suits me well (multi-tasking is my friend). I think it comes down to the individual.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Both can work, provided they stay disciplined and dedicated to their writing and craft. Learned specialists have the advantage of being more knowledgeable in a particular field.

David P. King said...

Well. My specialty is behavioral science, which is great for characters. I'm pretty much a generalist when it comes to everything else. I don't know a whole lot, so thank goodness for research options. :)

Jackson Porter said...

Yeah. I believe a bit of both works. If you're a specialist, then include that in your writing. If you're a generalist, then you can work with anything. But if you can become both a specialist and a generalist, then focus on the one subject you love most and incorporate it into all of your stories.

Make sense? It probably doesn't. But I tried anyway! :D

By the way, I'm your 100th follower!


Donna Hole said...

I think if you study something long enough - as in do the research - you can write anything. After all, wouldn't sci-fi be boring if you have to have a degree in engineering or be an astronaught just to write a Star Wars type novel.

Being interested in something enough to learn what is and is not plausable should be enough for fiction novel writing. Focus on "fiction".

Good questions to ponder though.


Mark Koopmans said...

Hey Richard,

Thanks for stopping by - and I agree with you all the way...

PS. I am generally a generalist, unless I have something specific to say :)

Arlee Bird said...

In my current prolonged state of unemployment at a somewhat advanced age I would definitely say it's better to have a specialized trade for finding employment. However, as a writer, it might depend partly on what you were trying to write, but in the end I think it would be the writing talent that would matter the most.

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DeniseCovey_L_Aussie said...

Great question Richard. As writers we don't have to be experts on our subject/issue but we need to do enough research to be convincing.

Denise (friend of Ann Best)