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

Lesson 1. The Mastery Path: How To Become a Writer (or a Better One)

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.

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