Writers Don’t Learn Writing By Writing

Ask reasonably good cooks how they learned their craft and they’ll likely tell you, “By experimenting with recipes… trial and error. You eventually discover what works and what doesn’t, what your family likes and what you shouldn’t bother to make again.”

Ask the gourmet-caliber cooks and they’re apt to say they studied at an accredited school of cooking or under a renowned chef, and apprenticed for many years.

It’s an analogy that you can’t take too far, but I look at writing in a similar light. There are writers who have a knack with words and can produce a best-selling book without any previous preparation or experience. They are the exception. Most successful writers will tell you they wrote and read, and wrote and studied, and wrote and listened, and… well, you get the idea. Good, well-crafted writing doesn’t just happen; it takes knowhow and lots of work.

Have you heard the definition that says insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result? It applies to writing, too. We hear it all the time: your first novel probably won’t be publishable, but it’s good practice. Keep trying. Write a second, a third and a fourth, and eventually you’ll get it right. From what I hear, that’s rubbish! You don’t learn how to write well just by writing a lot. All that does is perpetuate bad habits.

Every time I read a good how-to book about writing, listen to a knowledgeable speaker at a conference or lecture, or study a beautifully crafted novel, I discover techniques to enhance my storytelling ability. I’m still a long, long way from being the kind of writer I want to be but it’s a progressive endeavour.

I’m a firm believer that you don’t learn good writing by writing, but you hone it.

Do you think good writing is a natural talent or a learned ability? What have you done lately to enhance your knowledge of the craft of writing?

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14 thoughts on “Writers Don’t Learn Writing By Writing

  1. Katt says:

    I always have to laugh (to myself of course) at “new” writers who tell me writing a book is the “easiest thing they’ve ever done.” They tell me, “you just put the words on the paper, they flow.” And I always think, that’s great if that technique works for you, but the rest of us (me) have had to work hard to develop the craft. Thanks so much for reminding us, its really not as easy as it looks.
    Many blessings my sweet friend, and thanks for this reminder!
    Love you
    Katt

  2. Cathy says:

    Great words of wisdom. Thanks, Carol.

    I never feel I’ve arrived and am a great writer. It’s always a work in progress for me. I tried NaNoWriMo for 18 days and although I liked that it got me writing regularly, I didn’t like how I had to churn the words out. Quality suffered. I know the name of the game is word count but my story also fell flat. Still, I think it was a worthwhile exercise. Nothing is lost having done it.

    So to answer your question, I think a person needs talent but that it has to be nurtured and honed as you say.

  3. Some writers undoubtedly are born with more talent than others, but skill develops through learning, reading written materials on writing, emulating techniques of successful authors, and practice. Formal training, I am sure, is the best foundation for developing the craft of writing. A coach or one that reads and offers constructive criticism of a writer’s work may provide direction for the writer to learn and growl. Determination is another factor in any craft. The writer that is passionate about writing or about a message will persevere and grow.

    Answering the second question, what have I done to enhance my knowledge of the craft of writing: I have been learning through exposure to other writers through their blogs. I need time to apply what I’ve learned. For me time to write is limited.

  4. Tricia says:

    You need both. You’re born a writer if you can’t stop writing. But to be publishable you’ll need some lessons.

    I read Ian McEwan for lessons in excellence. It backfires though. I can never be the genius he is, and I want to quit, so I usually follow it up with a book I feel is more my speed.

  5. Totally agree with Tricia! You have to have both: you have to work hard at learning the craft and improving—and a lot of that will come through individual attention and focusing on your work (such as with a critique partner!).

    But if you don’t take the time to implement those lessons in your writing—if you never write, and always study—you’ll never get better. Personally, I learn lessons best—truly internalize them—when I apply them.

  6. patti says:

    Hmmm. Half and half. Seventy-thirty.

    God can do anything.

    Have I DONE ANYTHING? Every book I pick up is a case study (and there are shelves groaning with them). I mark, think, pick, edit, rewrite, brainstorm.

    My friends (CPAs, teachers, mothers, preachers) can’t believe how much time I just “sit around and write.”
    Blessings, dear one.
    P

  7. Jeanne B. says:

    I think it’s easier to be something if you start out with the raw seeds of natural talent. Then that raw talent should be developed as far as one is willing to take it.

    And there’s a third ingredient: passion. One must be so compelled to write (sing, act, paint, be a mom, etc) that one cannot function in the world without participating in it for some portion of the day.

    Raw Talent + Developing Craft + Compelled Passion = Greatness

  8. I appreciate all your comments and feedback! I also like Jeanne B’s suggestion that in addition to talent and craft we need a compelling passion to produce really great writing.

    Regardless of our levels of experience there is always something to be learned from others farther up the ladder. Have you all seen the page on Jody Hedlund’s blog that lists a whole whack of recommended books to help learn the craft of writing? That’s a wonderful resource! Of course, we could read indefinitely and never get around to the actual writing. Don’t forget it’s important to put into practice what we learn. 🙂

  9. stacy says:

    As with most things, there is some degree of innate talent
    and quite a bit of development.

  10. Terri-Lynne says:

    Talent without knowledge might produce glimpses of brilliance, but slogging through the rest is generally not worth it. Knowledge without natural talent can actually produce publishable work, but it will lack heart and soul and that spark that makes reading an experience.

    The best is when you have both–the natural aptitude AND the willingness to learn and learn and learn.

    (here via Jon Gibbs)

  11. Brenna Lyons says:

    You have to look at this from two different sides…or three. Writing involves three major components: storytelling, technical writing, and the work of publishing (which includes marketing). The latter two can be learned. Certainly, you can learn things like timing, grammar, punctuation, crafting readable vernacular…all technical writing attributes. Additionally, you can learn to work with editors, market, submit (all business of writing).

    What won’t you improve by repetition, classes, practice, etc.? Natural storytelling. Either you can spin a yarn, notice the nuances of character, setting, and plot and accurately turn them back on the page, turn a phrase, and so forth…or you can’t. Either you have a strong voice…which does change and deepen over time, but you have to be able to craft a consistent voice, in the first place…or you can’t.

    Brenna

    • Hi, Brenna. Welcome. Yes, the innate ability to tell a great story is both benefit and starting point for a writer, but wouldn’t you agree even that can be improved on by learned storytelling techniques? It’s certainly a combination of factors all right, and if there is a desire for publication that aspect plays into it, too. Thanks for visiting and adding your thoughts.

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