Just in case you’re panicking, let me assuage your fears right away: No, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to play chess or knit. In fact, when it comes to knitting, to me it appears as something only slightly less complicated than quantum mechanics.
The crux of the matter—and the reason this post is important to any writer looking to improve their craft—is how a seemingly irrelevant activity or hobby can help you with your writing.
In my case, that unexpected source was chess. For someone else, it might be knitting, gardening, playing guitar, or crafting origami.
As I have mentioned in the past about sensory writing exercises, before an author writes about anything at all, they first need to experience the world around them.
Not only can hobbies provide you with diverse, rich experiences that can inspire you, but they also offer intriguing possibilities for coming up with new writing techniques!
“How is that possible?” you might ask. “What could possibly be the connection between chess and writing, when it comes to techniques?”
Well, allow me to share my own experiences with improving my writing through playing chess. Then, we’ll take a look at how writers can improve their skills using their own favorite hobby.
I’ve been writing since I was a young child. Indeed, I wrote my first work of fiction when I was 7 or 8 years old. It was a short text, about two paragraphs long, with Donald Duck as the main character—we would call it fan fiction today, I suppose.
I’ve also played chess since I was about that age. I remember constantly getting beaten by an older kid. I felt bad about it until, some years later, I managed to finally win a game. Practice always makes you better, in chess and writing alike.
What I didn’t realize until much later was that practicing two different activities can have a combo effect.
In other words, the benefits you receive from practicing chess, knitting, or drawing can be very useful in your writing, too.
For me, although I recall having an “a-ha!” moment of proverbial enlightenment, the process was likely gradual, at least on a subconscious level. Still, I remember myself one day pondering on a very complex part of a storyline, and thinking it was a bit like chess.
I realized that having my characters and settings as an initial condition, I could picture one storyline in my head and follow it all the way to a later point, keeping track of all the little plot details and the what-ifs of each narrative branch.
Then, I could easily start another such thread in my mind, considering the ramifications of some other choice. I felt quite comfortable extending multiple such narrative threads without using any notes, following each thread to a significant extent in terms of planning the plot.
I was basically “writing” the story in my mind, foreseeing the narrative future, so to speak; not once, but multiple times, each time with its own little variations, trying to come up with the best option. In chess terminology (particularly in the context of artificial intelligence), this would be called the analysis depth.
It was very amusing to realize how easy it was to hold such complex, overlapping storylines in my head. Perhaps this feels easier to visualize for chess players (or, indeed, writers!), but there was certainly a synergistic, almost synesthetic, effect: I almost saw characters as chess pieces and settings as moves on a chess board.
I then began to wonder if this could be replicated with other hobbies. Smile, because I think it can!
When it comes to combining your hobbies to get a benefit boost for your writing, the aspect of creativity should be fairly straightforward.
Indeed, the way it works could be something like this, imagined in an “if-this-then-that” kind of sequence:
Therefore, having a hobby—any hobby, from gardening to collecting stamps—is in itself a great tool for a writer. As long as it’s something that makes you happy and relaxes you, such an activity helps you think more freely, outside patterns established by your daily routine.
Are some hobbies “better” than others? Are they more likely to boost your creativity? Perhaps so. I can imagine that people who draw better than I do—99.9 percent of the global population, that is—have a hobby that allows them to better visualize a certain scene or, say, a facial feature.
Similarly, people who gather inspiration for their writing from music perhaps find it easier to describe the subtle differences in sound hues, or the quality of a person’s voice.
They might even have an advantage when it comes to, say, rhythm. Which brings us to how a hobby can help you with your writing techniques.
When it comes to knowledge and skill, I’m an ardent believer in discovering and emphasizing connections. To learn more and improve our skills, I believe it’s crucial to discover these links between seemingly unrelated areas of experience.
This is where a hobby can provide some unexpected help, offering you surprising new tools that can improve your writing techniques.
The general idea is this: Think of your hobby as an aspect of your personality. Ask yourself, what is it about your hobby that you find interesting? Why precisely that, from all other hobbies?
Soon, you will discover fascinating details about your hobby that you perhaps never thought of before. In particular, you will likely realize something about yourself, something you’re good at. After all, it is unlikely for us to keep practicing something for too long if it’s incompatible with who we are.
Maybe you like painting because you like abstraction—or precision, depending on your style. Or, perhaps you enjoy gardening because you find meaning and rich symbolism in the ways plants grow.
In my case, I like chess because of the way it allows me to discover cause-and-effect patterns that can eventually become chaotically complex. It fascinates me that chess is entirely deterministic (no randomness involved), yet the possible patterns are beyond any number we can comprehend—and far greater than the total number of atoms in the universe.
Of course, others might prefer cooking because they’re good at coming up with combinations from simple ingredients. And as for those who like music, as I mentioned in the previous section, perhaps they’re drawn to the way music conveys emotion through rhythm.
Let’s collect all the terms I just emphasized:
The list could grow very long if we gathered all the elements one can find likable in a hobby. Did you notice it’s also a list of elements one can find in writing?
The next step is to make the short leap from hobby elements to writing elements.
Playing chess helped me develop the ability to notice cause-and-effect patterns that, as I showed you, proved to be surprisingly useful. It allows me to come up with complex ideas in my novels, but also in my writing in general. With the ability to see such patterns, planning the structure of a blog post is very easy.
And, just as in chess, planning such complex timelines allows you to see what won’t work far in advance. In writing, few things can be more frustrating than having written quite a bit of text, only to realize it’s not working.
Such elements of your hobbies can provide you with invaluable help when it comes to writing.
If you like abstract paintings, you could consider whether all the things you love about abstraction in painting would apply to your writing, too.
How about applying the things you know about musical rhythm to your text? Just as a staccato sequence can increase tension in a musical composition, a series of short sentences can really attract the reader’s attention.
As an exercise, you can create your own personal list of things you like in your hobbies. Then, try to see which elements of your writing can be improved by applying similar principles.
Whichever your favorite hobby, the key in using it to improve your writing technique is to understand that it’s a part of a wider experience, a bigger picture.
Discovering links between areas of experience is a magnificent tool for understanding the world around us.
Hobbies are small parts of who we are, reflections of our personality. To use a fancier term, your hobbies are playful little chunks of your identity.
As a writer, therefore, tapping the potential of your hobbies can be the gateway to finding your own unique writing style—perhaps the Holy Grail of writing.
At the very least, seeing the connecting links between your favorite hobbies and writing can be a fruitful new source of inspiration. It can also provide you with some fresh ideas on the style of your next blog post, or put you on the way to finally completing that novel you began some years ago.
Knowledge can never be compartmentalized, its facets kept apart from one another. Do the same for your writing, which is always preceded by experiencing.
Chris Angelis has a PhD in English literature from the University of Tampere. Besides his academic research in Gothic/horror & science fiction literature, he is also a writer of literary fiction, and the owner of a literature blog, Home For Fiction. Furthermore, he develops Android apps focusing on literature, writing, and texts in general. Chris is a content editor for Craft Your Content.