Writing is an Apprenticeship Art: 6 Strange Ideas People Have About Learning the Craft

Anyone can learn to write, but learning to write well is another matter.

Because writing is very much an art and not a science, people have a tendency to approach learning it with very strange ideas.

Strange Idea #1:

“Writers are born, not made, and words easily flow from the tip of their pens/output of their keyboard. All they write shall be as gold instantaneously and will sell like hotcakes in Siberia.”

Bull. Writers are not gods. Even if someone is born with a brain attuned to written communication and perhaps storytelling, writing is still hard.

Every writer you know has had bad arguments with the muse, awful hours of self-doubt when contemplating their work, long days at the laptop or notebook where they struggle with a scene or even an entire plot thread again and again, and are beaten for the day or the week or the month.

Ask them one day. Or better yet, go find their blog. It’s cool to be whiny about the writing on your blog, even if you’re a pro, these days. ;)

Strange Idea #2:

“There is nothing to be learned from any of these writing books, save The Elements of Style.”

Hah. Only half-bull.

There are good writing books that will teach you basic principles. See

  • On Writing Well (nonfiction),
  • Techniques of the Selling Writer (all fiction basics),
  • Plot & Structure (by Bell, in-depth plot basics),
  • Characters & Viewpoint (in-depth on, well, guess),
  • Self-Editing for the Fiction Writer (fine-tuning fiction).

I wish people would read these more often. Just because writing is an art doesn’t mean that every writer should step through all of writing history and torment agents while learning that perspective is a good thing (for instance).

I do read these and more. They’re why I write halfway decent at all.

Strange Idea #3

“I have read all these writing books. Now I Am Writer Supreme! Hear me flame on the writing message boards with the pure burning wrath of my knowledge!”

At the same time, just reading a bunch of writing books does not actually make you a writer, or experienced. It just means that you have a better idea of how not to screw up. Now you need to do the work—and because writing is an apprenticeship art, doing the work plays a much larger part in the learning than it would in other disciplines.

Besides, writing is an art. Rules are more guidelines, and can be broken—you just have to know what it costs and how to make up for it. Which is difficult, and sometimes there are costs you just can’t pay, but it’s not impossible to the 23rd degree.

Strange Idea #4

“Now that I am a writer, I should stop reading other people’s works. They may contaminate me somehow, like through technique or style or plot or something. I don’t want to steal from them.”

If learning were stealing, then school should be a lot more fun, don’t you think?

Writing is an apprenticeship art. That means you not only do a large part of learning by doing, but also by watching what the masters do. Not just watching, but also analyzing and breaking down.

(This is where having read a bunch of writing books comes in handy, because they give you the mental concepts and tools that make this analysis and breakdown bit much easier, because now you know what to look for.)

No writer develops in a vacuum. If you’re really a writer, you’ll be writing your own work regardless of whether you’ve been reading that of others (and if you’re just a plagiarist, someone is going to find out, and we will all be very amused).

Strange Idea #5

“Contests like NaNoWriMo aren’t useful, because people are just writing at breakneck speeds for the heck of it. Where’s the quality? Where’s the art?”

Where’s the deadlines? Where’s the pressure from someone other than yourself to finish this stuff?

NaNoWriMo is a practical exercise. More to the point, when people are beginning writers, they need to just WRITE far more than they need to worry every hair over the quality. As an apprenticeship art, if you don’t actually do the work, you won’t learn or improve much. And the more work you do, the more you learn. If you manage to put out 50k words in a month, you’re learning.

This assumes, of course, that you’re a) writing consciously instead of spitting out words on autopilot, and b) that you can get past the crappiness of it all and finish. Because finishing is certainly the most important lesson a writer can learn.

Strange Idea #6

“I have written something! And I don’t cringe when I read it! And neither does my beta! My road, it is finished!”

Uh, no. Now you have to publish. By which I mean, “really publish something through a non-vanity press publisher so that people know you can get through a first-level crap filter.”

And if learning how to be published is not an apprenticeship art, I don’t know what is.

Plus—dude. Now it’s time to write something else. You don’t just stop at one book. You’ve learned barely anything. You need to keep writing, keep working, keep refining. You think someone is a master just because they finished one book?

One book is just the beginning. And your first book is probably going to never be published—just like you better hope that you never get to hear someone play a violin maker’s first violin. But the first violin had to be made in order for enough knowledge to be gathered so that the second violin could be better.

Best get started on the second book.

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