The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Lesson 1. How To Become a Writer (or a Better One)

May 1, 2014

Tags: 1. The Mastery Path

Anyone who wants to become a writer these days is likely to be confused by the variety of approaches offered in writing workshops and how-to books. Maybe you’ve been told, “Just keep writing, you’ll get better,” or you’ve followed Annie Lamott’s advice to produce “sh-tty” first drafts, or you’ve followed Natalie Goldberg through years of freewriting, or Julia Cameron into endless exploration of your psyche. Or perhaps you’ve enrolled in a course that promised you the “Ten Steps to a Best-Seller,” or one that showed you how to promote your book, even though you haven’t written it yet.

Perhaps you’re enrolled in an MFA program; perhaps you’re working on your own.

You might even be a person who wants to become a better writer for practical reasons, because you know that excellent writing skills are valued in school and at work.

No matter who you are as a writer—aspiring novelist or essayist or poet, student or someone who needs to write well at work—there’s an approach to learning to write that will help you. I call it “The Mastery Path.”

The Mastery Path approach will help you because it’s grounded in the natural ways that humans learn: we learn and develop skills through practice and imitation.

If you have been taking writing courses for a while, it may sound strange to hear that writing requires skills. That’s because, in most creative writing courses these days, the emphasis tends to be on the writer’s self. Aspiring writers are encouraged to “be honest,” to “dig deep,” to “tell your own story,” and so on.

I dislike this approach. I think it makes people unhealthily concerned with themselves, whereas most great writers are concerned with other people, with the world around them. I also think that it stands on an assumption about writing that is completely false. So let me correct that assumption: Being a writer is not about who you are; it’s about the skills you have.

But, you will protest, all those great writers—their vision, their heart, their suffering…

Yes, of course every writer will bring to his work elements of who he is, and those elements will help make his work different from that of another writer. To take an example from another area, when David Ortiz hits a home run, it lifts in a different kind of arc from a home run hit by Dustin Pedroia. But here’s what the two major-leaguers have in common: they both have the skills to hit those home runs.

Skills, not talent, heart, or digging deep into your psyche, are what separate the pros from the amateurs. And here’s the good news: in writing, as in baseball, music, business, or any other field, those skills can be learned.

In sports, in painting, in music—nobody expects to achieve professional results without years of learning skills. Yet somehow these days, in the world of creative writing, aspiring writers are simply told to “go write.” It’s advice that has doomed countless thousands to frustration, despair, and the wasting of enormous amounts of time.

The Mastery Path is different. You can set aside the need to produce pages and drafts; instead you spend your time learning the skills you need to write well. This approach is very simple. It’s also very hard work, demanding persistence, discipline, and focus. That’s because learning skills can only be done through dedicated, deliberate, repeated practice. That’s how professional baseball players or opera singers learn their skills. Writers can learn theirs the same way.

Here I will be offering you a number of lessons to help you walk the path towards mastery in writing. I will be directing you towards other resources that can help you, as appropriate. I hope you will try out the practices and comment on them. And, if you write to me, I will try to answer your questions.

Because this approach to learning to write is so different from what most people are used to, I will be spending some time explaining how it works before we get into learning specific skills. I will also tell you something about my own journey as a writer, writing teacher, and coach, so you can decide whether I’m someone you feel you can learn from.

I hope you will join me as we walk the Mastery Path towards expertise in writing.


Comments

  1. December 22, 2014 4:01 AM EST
    I came across your website at work as i wanted to brush off my writing skills and honestly after reading every word of the Mastery path i think it is worth it to go through the lessons and i believe i will gain a lot from it.

    Thank you
    - Porsche
  2. August 18, 2015 8:24 PM EDT
    Barbara, I just found these lessons on your website and I'm very intrigued already! I am on the yellow brick road towards becoming a novelist - with a book in progress. I'm constantly seeking new sources for guidance. Odd that I began to write a book without knowing how to do it. Talk about the cart before the horse! But I'm determined to see it through. Your credentials have impressed me, and I'm eager to read through all of the lessons here! My book is on hold while I back up and start at the beginning.
    Thank you!
    - Meg
  3. August 23, 2015 5:21 AM EDT
    I have often heard it said, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." Thank you for appearing. I'm ready. (And so very grateful!)
    - Penelope Mercier
  4. August 29, 2015 8:12 AM EDT
    Why didn't I find you sooner, Barbara? I read this lesson several times because you articulated what I've been feeling the past couple of years, and since I started my writing career. That nagging feeling about writing a memoir that is about me, me, and me. It didn't feel right. Yes, I want to write a memoir but to help others, using the "me" part only as a backdrop to point to the lesson or message for the reader. My approach has always been "what's in it for them." But as a new writer, I wasn't sure how or if I had the ability to do it. I'm so glad I found you and I'm committed to diligently go through all the lessons. BTW, as a resource for my current WIP I got your Spellbinding Sentences book. Thank you so much for this course.
    - Pat
  5. September 10, 2015 7:57 AM EDT
    There is a site called 'life captured.' While helping photographers, I have made use of the site area called 'journaling.' An entire month of offering daily prompts encourages topical writing (or thinking) that, while challenging, has left me unable to translate that into true skill. Your book, How To.Be A Writer, has already fired off a 'Gentlemen, start your engines' response in me. Not to entirely overstate, your book and this site have given me direction and hope. I am a quilter who has learned skills to accomplish much; to tackle skill building in writing is a new concept. Thanks for offering a pettern, a template, and yourself as teacher/mentor in a new adventure.
    - JoAnne Stanley
  6. September 15, 2015 1:32 PM EDT
    I am an aspiring writer based in Nigeria. I have read a lot of articles and write-ups on writing but they are either too cumbersome, or need an inordinate amount of time to understand. Just came across your website today (15 August 2015) and already I just feel I have arrived at the right place to garner the skills needed to write expertly.
    - JUDE EMY UTI
  7. September 19, 2015 10:47 AM EDT
    Dear Porsche, Meg, Penelope, Pat, JoAnne, and Jude,
    Thank you all very much for taking the time to comment. I'm delighted that my approach appeals to you, and I look forward to hearing from you again as you work through the lessons. Please keep in mind that it does take time to build your skills in writing (as with anything else), but anyone who devotes herself/himself to practice will eventually master the skills.
    - Barbara Baig
  8. October 2, 2015 11:27 PM EDT
    Reading your book "Spellbinding Sentences". As I reached Chapter 9 of the book I wondered why not visit your website. I am amazed. Now I think I have to simultaneously learn the lessons and read the book. I have just finished reading the Lesson 1. Feeling intoxicated. I am from Bangladesh and very eager to improve my English.Thank you, Barbara.
    - Maswood A Khan
  9. October 9, 2015 12:34 PM EDT
    You're very welcome, Maswood.
    - Barbara Baig
  10. April 7, 2017 5:24 AM EDT
    what is ur website for learning writing skills for the very first beginers or any particular website for mastery path..?
    - sufiyan khan
  11. April 7, 2017 9:45 AM EDT
    This is my website for beginning writers. As for mastery, I highly recommend Anders Ericsson's book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.
    - Barbara Baig