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

Lesson 7. The Skills Writers Need

Although just putting words on paper, as with freewriting, is easy, writing so that other people understand your words, and are moved by them, is not. That’s because writing, like hitting a 95-mph fastball over the Green Monster, or singing a Puccini aria, is a complex skill. Like any complex skill, it is made up of a large number of component skills. I group these skills into two main categories: content skills, and craft skills.

1.Content skills
Content skills are the ones you use to come up with material for pieces of writing. To develop these skills, you need to train, through practice, various mental faculties, including your power of observation, your imagination, your subconscious, and your curiosity. Thes mental faculties provide you with “stuff” for your writing: ideas, characters, settings, stories, and so on.

Many people who want to write find themselves struggling to come up with material. They may have a great idea for a poem or a story, but they don’t have any material to work with. These writers need to work on developing their content skills before they try to write finished pieces.

Another crucial content skill is the ability to establish a natural relationship with ordinary readers. Many aspiring creative writers struggle with this, as all their lives they have written for teachers--and, for a number of reasons, the relationship between writer and teacher is usually an uncomfortable and unnatural one, quite unlike the relationship professional writers have with their readers.

In upcoming lessons we’ll explore some practices for developing content skills. My book, How To Be a Writer: building your creative skills through practice and play, is devoted entirely to practices that will make you feel much more confident in your ability to come up with and develop your ideas or stories. It also provides practices in establishing a natural relationship with readers.

Craft skills
Along with the content skills, you need craft skills. There are two kinds: one, the “large” craft skills, involve knowing how your chosen genre works. A mystery works much differently from an op-ed piece; they both work differently from a lyric poem. Most how-to writing books focus on genre: you will have to do a lot of browsing and comparing to find the ones that will teach you the skills you need in a way that’s right for you.

The second kind of craft skill I call the “small” craft. This is the ability to choose words and arrange them into powerful, eloquent, spellbinding sentences. For expertise in this craft, you need to train, not your “content-mind,” but your “word-mind.”

It’s at this level of the craft of using language that the talent myth often gets in the way. Aspiring writers understand that they need to learn the structure of a mystery novel or a narrative poem, but they often assume that skill with words is something a person either has or doesn’t have.

But here again the talent myth is—just a myth. Anyone can develop expertise in using language, and all aspiring writers should put a lot of time and energy into doing so. That’s because when you have skill with words, you can make magic on the page: you can make people and places and events come alive in your reader’s mind; you can keep your readers spellbound and turning the pages. When you have skill with words, you develop your own distinctive style, your own voice.

If you need to develop your skills with language—and almost all aspiring writers do—then I encourage you to immerse yourself in Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer's Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers. It provides hundreds of practices, tested for years in an MFA Program in Creative Writing, to help you train and develop your word-mind. We’ll look at some of these practices in upcoming lessons.

It may be that you also lack skill in the fundamentals of grammar and punctuation. You may assume that, if you can write an exciting story, some editor will be happy to “fix” all your mistakes. But the truth is that grammatical errors make you look like an amateur, and editors and publishers are looking for pros. So, if you need to review grammar basics, take a look at Patricia Osborn’s How Grammar Works or English 3200 (a self-teaching guide).

Writing process
In addition to all these skills, you need to find a writing process that works for you when you are working on a piece you want to finish. You need to understand the work of creating a draft, as well as the work of revision and editing. There are many books available that will give you tips on how this process works.

At this point you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed by the number of skills you need to learn. Take a deep breath, and relax. You have lots of time to learn these skills, and you don’t need to learn them all at once. Instead, you’ll choose the ones you want to focus on first, and from there you’ll move forward, step by step.

Begin your learning journey
To learn to write is not simply to follow someone else’s instructions. Learning to write (like learning anything else) is a journey. You can take this journey in the company of others, by participating in a writing course or joining a writers’ group. You can take it on your own. Or you can do some of both.

This journey will not necessarily be easy. You will be tested by coming up against things you don’t know how to do, by times of intense frustration. The success of your journey—whether you can continue it in the face of such obstacles—will depend in large part on how determined you are. If you are the kind of person who gives up every time something doesn’t come easily to you, if you expect writing to be “fun” all the time, then you are unlikely to get very far on your journey. If, on the other hand, you love the challenge of learning new things, if you are willing to persist through the periods of confusion and frustration that inevitably accompany real learning, then you will be rewarded. You will develop solid skills and the confidence that you know what you are doing when you write.

You can take a learning journey in the world of writing any time you like. It doesn’t matter how old (or how young) you are; it doesn’t matter what your experiences with writing have been. And you don’t need to worry if you don’t have “talent.” It’s certainly true that some people have a natural aptitude for writing, just as some have a natural aptitude for hitting a baseball. It’s also true that these people don’t necessarily go on to have the most successful careers. (Think Barry Bonds, or Manny Ramirez.) Many professional writers worked hard to develop their skills. In writing, as in sports (think Larry Bird or Dustin Pedroia), what counts most is hard work, determination, persistence—and the willingness to learn.

As with any journey, when you embark on a journey of learning to write, it’s helpful to know where you are starting from. Here’s a practice to assist you in seeing where you are now as a writer:

Using nonstop writing (freewriting), answer these questions:
1. What writing skills do I now have? What are my strengths? What can I already do as a writer? (For example: I can come up with ideas for pieces. Or: I can describe plants and people.) Try to make your answers as detailed and specific as you can.
2. What writing skills do I want to learn? What can my favorite writer do on the page that I wish I could do? Again, try to be specific.
Now look through your answers. What do you notice?
Now go through the list of skills you want to learn and consider which ones are the most important to you right now. Write down these skills in a new list.
Now ask yourself (and write down your thoughts): How can I learn these skills? (Take a class? Read some of those writing books I’ve been collecting? Study a favorite writer? Talk to a writer friend?)
Take a few more minutes to write down any other thoughts you have about what you want to learn and how you might learn these things.
If you like to plan, you may want to organize your learning journey in more detail. Or you may prefer to just get started and see what happens.

You can use this practice at any time during your learning journey. It will help you stay on your path and intuit your next steps. You may, for instance, want to work on one set of skills for a while, then switch to a different set.

One of the things that makes learning to write so enjoyable is that there are always new things to learn. So I strongly urge you to see your journey in the world of writing as a lifelong one. Your path will not look exactly like anyone else’s, and it will probably surprise you in its movement.

Most of all, I encourage you to leave behind, as you take your journey, the attitude of being “in school.” There will be no tests, no boring drills, none of the drudgery of make-work that so often contributes to making schools such unhappy places. You will be free to learn in your own way, at your own pace. Learning, when undertaken under conditions of freedom, is a joyful adventure.

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