Monday, March 30, 2020

The Pros and Cons of Studying the Writing Craft

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Studying the craft of writing is useful to improve your skill, but at what point does it become a hindrance?

I received an interesting email last week from a woman who’s taking advantage of her quarantine to study up and improve her writing. She’s been reading a lot of craft books, and was wondering if a writer could read too much—could their education outweigh their skill?

Short answer: Yes, absolutely.

Long answer: Still yes, but with more detail (grin).

When I was starting out, books and school were pretty much the only ways to get a writing education. There were writing conferences out there, but they were harder to find since the Internet was still new and just becoming the behemoth it is today (and for the record, this was early ’90s. I’m not a dinosaur yet).

I’m sure there were online resources, but I was clueless on how to find or use them. Everyone was still using the printed and enormous Writers’ Market books and sending paper snail mail queries. It’s hard to imagine that now with everything at our fingertips, but this was pre-Google. It was pre-most-things-Internet.

I bought a ton of books, read them, highlighted passages, took notes, and absorbed as much as I could.

On one hand, this was good as it gave me knowledge and understanding of the process. But on the other, there’s only so much a writer get from reading about craft. You have to write to really understand how to write.

Here are some pros and cons about studying the craft of writing:

Pro: You Build a Foundation of Understanding About Writing

Writing has a language all its own, and it’s useful to understand that language. You’ll be better prepared to benefit from what you’re reading when you know what the terms mean and what the techniques are. It’s hard to craft a scene using a protagonist with agency and a strong narrative drive if you don’t understand what those four things are.

You also learn the basics of writing and storytelling, so when you start writing, you have some guidelines and structure to guide you. You’ll think about things such as your inciting event, and what your point of view is, and if you’re showing or telling.

(Here’s more on Write Happy! The 4 Little Letters That Will Transform Your Writing Process)

Con: You Know So Much That You Worry if You’re Doing it Right vs. Writing

The flip side here is knowing all the things you ought to be doing can paralyze you from actually writing at all. I’ve spoken to plenty of writers who keep outlining or planning, or writing and revising their first few chapters over and over because they aren’t doing something every craft book says they need to do.

It’s easy to get so caught up in making it perfect that nothing gets done. The “perfect first draft” is a myth, but the quest for that seems to go up significantly for new writers thinking they need to write pro-quality work their first time out. They don’t. They just need to finish a draft.

(Here’s more on Do Writers Practice Their Art?)

Pro: You’re Exposed to a Variety of Process and Technique

Every writer is different, and when you’re starting out, you’re not sure what will work for you. There are techniques and processes you likely haven’t heard before. Reading about the various ways to write helps you identify what appeals to you and helps you find your own process.

Are you a pantser or a planner or somewhere in between? Do you like to fast draft and revise, or write slowly and revise as you go? Do you write chronologically or out of order? Pencil and paper or computer? Mind map or wing it? There are so many options to try and experiment with.

(Here’s more on What's the Best Way to Tell (and Write) a Story?)

Con: You Try Everything and Never Figure Out Your Own Process

The problem with having so many options is that you might get sucked down the rabbit hole of trying all of them and never finding your own. It’s also common to hit a wall with your story and think it’s your process that’s the problem, not the story or scene itself. “Oh,” you say, “if I outline/pants/mind map instead, then this wouldn’t have happened.”

While it’s true that the wrong process can make it tough to write, be wary if you’re still having the same problems no matter which process you use. That’s a red flag it’s the scene or the story, not the process.

(Here’s more on What Matters More? Story Execution or the Idea?)

Pro: You Know What You Should Be Doing

It’s a lot easier to write a well-crafted story when you know how a well-crafted story is put together. You have plot points and structure to guide you, you know how to create goals and conflicts, you write to show and not tell. Even in rough-draft form, the story works.

Having a strong writing foundation gives you the necessary tools to write well. Understanding how those tools work allows you to use the best tool for the job at hand.

(Here’s more on Writing Takes Work, Even When You're a Pro)

Con: You Know What You Should Be Doing

It’s a lot harder to write a well-crafted story when you know how a well-crafted story is put together. The flaws are more obvious, you know when you’re not doing something right, and the desire to be better can cause unnecessary or too-early revisions.

It’s that expectation that everything has to work the first time that gets you. There’s no room for letting the story develop organically, or finding your feet as a writer. It’s the urge to “get moving” and not “waste time” on a story that might not sell. But here’s the thing—it’s extremely rare for a first book to sell. Writers need those early novels to hone their skills and develop their craft.

(Here’s more on Can We Know Too Much About the Publishing Industry?)

If your goal is to be a published author one day (indie or traditional), then you will of course need to study and improve your writing skills to a professional level. But writing has steps just like any other skill—for example, in ice skating, you need to learn how to stand on ice skates before you can land a triple axle. If you don’t know what a goal is, you won’t be able to write a strong scene. But once you learn the fundamentals, you can move on to your first “jump.”

Read books, takes classes, do workshops. Learn what you need to be successful, but don’t spend all your time learning and skip the practice of writing. You need to write a novel to fully understand what goes into crafting one. You need to plot and plan and create characters and motivations to sharpen those skills, and reading a book on character development will only get you so far. Just like reading about jumps won’t mean you can land one on the ice.

Knowledge + practice = skill.

Gather your knowledge, then write.

Have you ever faced craft-book overload? How did you deal with it?

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you  can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. This post is coming at an excellent time. I have been dealing with this very thing for a while now. So many craft books, and each one helpful in its own way. I enjoy them all, but the overload sometimes, well it is numbing and creates confusion and doubt. Sometimes I look back on what I wrote earlier, before learning anything about craft, and I see the spark of pure enjoyment, writing for writings sake. But I also see the many flaws in the structure, character development, and story development within the prose. It's both encouraging and discouraging in the same instant. I also find that I am not moving forward with actual writing. Instead I am constantly second guessing and stopping forward momentum to read more, learn more. It's become a cycle and a crutch, a reason to move away from a WIP with the built in excuse "I need to know more. Be better." At the same instant, internally I am waging a battle telling myself to "Just write. Rediscover that passion within and allow things to flow. What is broken can be fixed. Put the words on the page!" It is the fear that investing so much time into a manuscript that may end up completely broken or disjointed beyond repair that freezes my fingers above the keyboard. It is as if I am waiting for some light bulb to go on, or a eureka moment to strike, that will signal to my inner critic and my inner writer that I have the green light to start. That I am proficient enough that the story will stand up after I have written the first draft and prepare to revise and edit, because, as you stated, there is no perfect first draft.
    Well. Anyway. Wonderful post. Thank you so much for it Janice and I hope you and yours are staying safe and healthy. Be well.

    1. Most welcome, glad you enjoyed it. There's an awful lot you can do with plot and structure and even character before you ever write a word. The same caution applies, as you can spend forever planning and not write, but if you get a decent outline or general summary of the story and see all the right pieces, even if they aren't perfect, then at least you know your first draft will be workable at the very least.

      As they say, you can't improve a draft you haven't written. If you get something down, you can always make it better.

  2. In support of studying the craft, I wrote the first couple chapters of my novel before I learned about not switching POV in the middle of scenes. It would have been helpful to know that earlier, because it was difficult to go back and edit the scenes into a single POV. Luckily it's a lesson that I learned pretty early on!

    On the flip side, I went through a phase where worrying about what other people would think was becoming almost debilitating. I got through that phase by making the decision that I was going to write what made me happy and when I was done I could decide if I wanted to share it with other people. It really helped to take a lot of the pressure off. I still worry that my writing doesn't live up to professional standards and sometimes it holds me back, but it's no longer debilitating.

    1. Exactly. There's a happy medium there where you get enough knowledge to write, and then you add to that as you run into the things you need to learn or work on.

      That's very true and common with critiques. And if you get negative feedback, it can make you second guess your whole novel. Or even if you get good feedback, if it's the wrong feedback, you might edit in ways that hurt your story.

      A little secret...even the pros worry about their writing sometimes. I think it's part of being a writer. I have drafts I worry about when I send to betas, that it stinks and I wrote a hot mess. We all have doubts. :)