What I’ve Learned About Learning to Write

There are a lot of people who don’t believe in studying the ‘craft’ of writing. Writing is art, they say. You need to find your passion and let it flow through you. Don’t worry about structure or voice or character arcs. That only inhibits the freedom of your unique magic.

I like to imagine these people say these things while wearing lots of tie-dye and flowy skirts. And doing yoga.

(Not knocking yoga. It’s amazing, and I’m envious of anyone who can do it well.)

I acknowledge that not everyone’s brain works the same way. Not all of us enjoy breaking down the seven-act plot structure, and find beat sheets more perplexing than helpful. Storytelling theory is, to many writers, intimidating and confusing–and those two things aren’t especially conducive to creative expression.

However, I think there comes a point for every writer that “just doing it” is no longer sufficient. You’ve spent some time experimenting, you’ve gained some confidence in your ability to tell a story. Where do you go now? How do you push yourself to the next level?

Perhaps you’re not interested in pushing yourself to the next level. Perhaps you’re perfectly content with your writing just as it is. Perhaps you’re also not reading a blog about writing, and I’m just talking to myself right now.

If you are, indeed, seeking further light and knowledge:

1. What the hell are you doing here, of all places?

2. Assuming this blog is just a quick pit stop in your search for writerly enlightenment, you’ve probably noticed that there is a lot of writing advice and instruction to be had–blogs, podcasts, conferences, workshops, newsletters, online courses and instructional books galore.

3. Not all of it is created equal.

I’m coming at this from the angle of someone who has done a lot of my own searching, not someone who is the any sort of authority, or has any credentials to back up what I’m saying. Since I was 9, and I first read my dad’s copy of Orson Scott Card’s “How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy”, I have done a ridiculous amount of reading on the subject of storytelling. Even before I seriously considered pursuing writing, the mechanics of what makes a story work–and what doesn’t–has always fascinated me.

My Feedly app is filled with writing blogs. My days include a lot of commuting, and I spend most of that time listening to podcasts on writing. I’ve been a member of a number of online writing workshops over the last seven years. This blog began as a way for me to sort through and assimilate the things I was learning, and has become a sort of accumulation of the high points–those aha moments that have changed the way I write for the better.

Here are a few things I’ve learned not about writing, but about Learning About Writing:

Publication Doesn’t Make Someone An Expert

As aspiring writers, we’re sometimes so focused on the goal of publication that we forget how subjective (and occasionally random) the publishing industry is. A lot of really great writers struggle to get their work published, and some with arguably less talent seem to make it overnight. There are good books on bookstore shelves, and some pretty crappy ones as well. All of those authors have been published, but I’d be more in a hurry to take advice from some of them than others.

Likewise, being good at something doesn’t mean a person is automatically talented in the art of teaching. It’s perfectly possible for someone to know how to write a good story, without knowing how to help others do the same.

A special consideration for those involved in writing workshops, either the face-to-face or online: over the years I’ve seen a lot of authors, having achieved some small measure of success, join these groups for the satisfaction of being a big fish in a small pond. A dozen short-story credits or a midlist novel doesn’t make you King of the Hill in the published world, but it can earn you a great deal of attention among aspiring writers.

Not all of these authors are motivated by their egos. Some genuinely want to help. Often there’s a combination of the two happening. However, an attitude of  “You should listen to me because I’m a published author” in the context of a workshop is usually a big red flag.

The one person who had the biggest personal influence on me as a writer–he made me twice the writer I was before–had no publishing credits to speak of. He was simply brilliant.

Writing Instruction is an Industry

I think this is a really important thing to keep in mind when you’re seeking out writing instruction. You know those people that travel the motivational speech circuit sharing the secrets of how they got rich, and you suspect the real answer is that they got rich by booking those speeches and selling ‘informational kits’ to would-be entrepreneurs? There are writers who make a larger portion of their income from their e-courses on “How To Write/Get Published” than they do from their actual writing.

This doesn’t mean they have nothing valuable to teach you. Just remember that when there is a demand for a product, all sorts of people will scramble to fill it, whether or not they have anything of quality to offer.

You don’t have to shell out big bucks to learn how to write, or get published. There is a veritable wealth of information available on both of these subjects, for free or for the price of an ebook or two. There are also some writers conferences and online courses that are well-respected and receive high reviews, and also carry a hefty price tag. If money is less of a concern for you, feel free to participate in things like this, but realize that it isn’t a necessary step in the path to publication, and be sure to do your homework beforehand. Expense does not always equal quality or potential benefit to you.

There are no hard and fast rules.

Everyone has an opinion on everything, and we’re all sure we’re right. They wouldn’t be our opinions if we thought they were wrong. However, it’s important to remember that writing is a creative pursuit, and there is more than one way to do it well. Most writing ‘rules’ (like the Pirate Code, they’re more like what you’d call guidelines) have been defined and taught for a legitimate reason. Beginning writers tend to lean on adverbs instead of using the right verb. It’s easier to tell something than to show it, even though the telling is generally less interesting. Passive voice can result in some mighty confusing sentences.

However, there are plenty of writers (published and unpublished) who are so enamored of these rules that they’ll follow them right off a cliff–and will insist that you must do the same.

Don’t be the idiot who assumes she is such a special snowflake that she is immune to the pitfalls that claim other writers so often that they’ve become part of the collective writer consciousness. But also, don’t be the jackass that can’t see the prose for the adverbs.

In my experience, the people who lay out the ‘always’ and ‘never’ advice are the ones who don’t necessarily want you to write well–they want you to write like them. That might not be a bad thing–they might be excellent writers. However, it’s a very limiting way to approach an art form that is so broad, subjective, and has so many possibilities.

Anything can work in the hands of a skilled-enough writer. Will it work for you? Maybe, maybe not. But keeping an open mind is never a bad thing.

Good luck on the path toward enlightenment. If you bump into me out there, give a girl a lift, eh?

~ RM

2 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned About Learning to Write

  1. Love this post! Wonderful advice for the writing journey. I think the most important part for me personally is to work hard, and to never get comfortable enough to believe my work is done.

  2. “In my experience, the people who lay out the ‘always’ and ‘never’ advice are the ones who don’t necessarily want you to write well–they want you to write like them. ”

    This is definitely what brings up a red flag for me. While there are people I would love to be able to write as well as, I still don’t want to write like them. I want to write like me, only better.

    Great post! 🙂

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