Why I NEVER insist on writers learning technique first.

Hey all! I’m finally back. Would have posted sooner, but the power was out all day.

Incidentally: Not the best thing ever to happen during a heat wave.

So anyway… remember what I said about me blogging about topics that leap out at me? Well, this is one of them.

I’d like to know from you, two things:

1) Did you decide to learn writing skills before starting to write?
2) Have you actually finished a book yet? (Even if it’s a first draft.)

And now, on to the actual post:

On of my website meanderings, a new writer asked if it’s cliche to alternate points of view with every new chapter.

I said something along the lines of it not being a question of cliche, but of flow, and that if she thought the flow worked, she needed to have the guts to follow through with it.

Which led to someone insisting that a writer HAS to learn the skills and technique first instead of guts. And me being me, I tried to be nice and admitted that yes, skills and technique were necessary to a writer. But that one needed guts to actively write first before learning them.

Comment from her: 

No.  You need technical skill before you can develop your voice and style.  Dancers don’t start off with as choreographers; musicians don’t start of as conductors.

Me: 

But writing is neither dancing nor music. And as a person who does all three, I know that approaching all three activities the same way would be pretty dang stupid. 

Point is that writers who focus on learning “all the technical skills” before they actually start writing, almost never finish their projects. 

Because the one thing writing, dancing and music have in common is that learning skills is a never-ending process. So if you don’t start writing first and learning as you go, it basically comes down to an interesting form of procrastination.


That said, I don’t particularly believe in insisting there’s only one way of getting this writing thing done. So more power to anyone who does learn writing the other way around. I just haven’t seen it happen among any of my writing acquaintances. 

(Which is where my questions came from. I haven’t seen this happen, but it could have and I missed it. And me being me, I’d really like to know if I’m wrong, and by how much.)

Her

Wow.  Sorry you feel so defensive about it.

Me: 

I’m not defensive per se. But as I said, I’ve had contact with over a thousand writers since 2010, and none that I could think of actually finished a book after “learning the trade” first. 

I actually think it’s because there’s so much knowledge, some of it contradicting, that writers lose their inherent style and voice because they have too many people “telling” them what to do and how. 

And as I said, one never stops learning in any of the arts. So a writer who’s postponing writing until sufficient knowledge and skill is gained, almost never actually gets to the writing bit. 

So truly, I’m not so defensive in the sense that I think my way is the only way. But I try very hard to foster an enjoyment of writing within new writers. And that’s hard when people (no matter how well-meaning) insist on “rules” and “methods” and “skills” that – if taken too far – will actually set a writer back rather than help him/her. 

What I mean by this is that I’ve been writing for almost thirteen years now. I had the fortune of starting before I had access to the internet and all of its information. I say this because it meant I could find my own voice, style etc first, and adapt the rules, technique etc to suit what I wanted to do, instead of vice versa. 

With the shoe on the other foot, (people who wanted to learn the technique) I’ve seen person on person, new writer after new writer postpone their (often excellent) projects because they felt their technique lacking, or because their books broke too many rules. And you know what? They almost never start again.  

It’s a pity, really. A great one. And it’s the reason why I might come across as defensive. Because I’m defending a new writer’s right to enjoy writing, even if their writing SUCKS! I’m defending their right to explore, to make mistakes and to learn for themselves. So that they can see in the end why techniques work, and which rules can stand bending. 

And if I can be very naughty, I’m going to use your previous analogy. 

Dancers don’t become dancers to become choreographers. They dance because they love it. They become choreographers because they love dance first. 

Same with musicians and composers. The love and passion for music comes first. 

Writers need to have that love and passion fostered within them. And if that means me being a seeming anarchist to say: “Go on!!! Try it! No one will kill you!” I’ll do it every time. 

Because in the end, the most amazing things in art come from people who had the guts to try something.

That said, I do believe skill and technique has its time and place. Namely: Revisions and edits. If you don’t at least understand rules and why they exist, and if you don’t know writing craft, improving on what has been written (an incredibly important aspect to producing a readable novel) would be impossible.

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38 thoughts on “Why I NEVER insist on writers learning technique first.

  1. Oh boy. I think every writer starts as a panster, unless they're a man.

    *shifty eyes*

    I agree it's best to begin writing before you know you should be following the rules. Those things will come, but we need to be uninhibited by them long enough to nurture the love of what we're doing.

  2. I'm a musician and if all I ever did when starting out was learn technique (notes, etc.) without also playing I never would've learned to play an instrument. You have to do both at the same time to learn.

  3. I think there's a learning curve when it comes to writing. I did not learn any new skills when I wrote my first book. Having said that, my first book, although a darling in contests, could never find a foothold with an agent. It was my second one, the one I poured more technique and writing skills into than my first one, that got the agent. Just sitting down and writing out your first book should be, in my opinion, an unadulterated experience without all the rules behind it. It might not be the one that gets out there first, but you will get that first book written, which makes it easier to write later books.

  4. I agree with the others, you do need to foster a love for writing before going deeper into techniques. I've been writing for years and only in the last seven have been learning and applying the rules to my work. I'm learning when they can be broken as well. I think it's healthy to get our stories down first then dig into the craft to help us. As said above, you need to learn both together to excel at anything you do.

  5. I think skills are necessary to create something worthwhile in any area: art, writing, carpentry, computers, whatever. But as a writer, I can tell: you learn skills by doing. No amount of classes and instructions can substitute for the real thing – writing. Someone set a plank at 1 million words, and I agree. By the time you've written 1 million words or more, you can consider yourself a professional writer. So your original question seems to me on the same level as: what comes first – an egg or a chicken. They come together, imo. Visualize the image :))

  6. There are no techniques to writing beyond spelling, grammar, and punctuation, and, yes, you should learn as much about those as you can before you start writing, meaning while you are in school and in a position to learn about those things. However, if you failed to learn those things in school, learn them on the job, because that's the best way to do it (which is what you should be doing in school while writing papers, etc). Beyond those things, there are no rules.

  7. I started learning the craft of writing after writing my first novel. That's why there is a completed trilogy now. The last two books are rough draft. but that is because I've learned that there is no need to “polish” the later 2 novels if there is no interest for the first.

    I've taken some creative writing and English lit and composition classes both in high school and college. But without that initial desire to actually write, the classes meant nothing but teaching me technical form.

    I'm not a musician or dancer, or artist of any kind; but I believe any creative outlet begins first with the imagination and desire to express one's self. After getting a few of my short stories published, too many of my friends and family confided they would like to write poetry, short stories, novels . . but feel they don't know enough about the craft to begin. I tell them I didn't know either; I just decided to sit down and write a novel one day. I only started learning “craft” once I decided to get it published. Sometimes I'm stinted in my creativity now that I know many of the industry rules.

    “Just Do It” is more than a shoe logo. The first draft is the hardest part of writing, and there are many excuses not to start, let alone finish, that initial step in the process.

    ………dhole

  8. This is really interesting, and a great topic. I can totally agree with this. When I first began writing, I had no idea what I was doing. But I LOVED it. I wrote constantly and enjoyed every second and I began to create my own writing voice. However, I decided to study writing in college and though I learned many techniques and different ways to better my writing – I started getting caught up on how I was writing and not that I “was” writing. Eventually, writing wasn't so much fun and it hated writing “badly” so I just didn't write much at all.

    Now, because of my studies I became a book editor and that would not have happened without learning all that I did, but see how that just made me pickier about not only my writing… but other's as well? Ha. I am really excited for my clients and anyone who has written a first draft, second, tenth, etc. Often times, these are writers who write first, learn later – and kudos to them, because they actually finished their drafts. katiemccoach.com/blog

  9. I think the desire and need to write comes first, technicalities can be learnt as you go. Exploring your own style and voice and actually completing that first ms is the best learning curve I know of.

  10. I love your approach to writing, and have emulated it. In fact, I agree with everything you've said! I once heard an expression that resonated with me; “don't let your writing get in the way of your story.” Too many courses and blogs seem to be aimed at scholars, not authors.

    Having said that, I don't dismiss the value of developing one's skills; I just question how much you can learn without actually writing. Which, I guess, was your point! 🙂

  11. This is a great approach and I agree. I've been writing since I was a small child, so it was never about the technicalities. I also have a Creative Writing degree, but I've learned far more from just writing than I did from that course.

  12. Like several other people who've commented, I started when I was young. I never thought about the rules etc, I just wrote what felt good. I'd go one further and say possibly if you don't have that gut feeling, you'll find it hard to be 'taught' how to write. But perhaps that's a discussion for another day, because I know many, many people who disagree with me.

  13. I'm with you, Misha – I think the two have to go hand in hand. It makes zero sense to NOT WRITE when you're learning the trade. I also think I learned, and continue to learn, a ton from just reading.

  14. I don't think anyone ever fully knows craft. There is so much to it and always room for improvement. I didn't learn technique before I wrote my first book. And I think reading a solid craft book like GMC before writing my first novel would have shortened my journey but I learn with every manuscript, and as a published author with an agent, I've accepted I'll never be *there.* I don't even where *there* is anymore!

  15. I definitely learned craft after I began writing–probably mostly during my second novel. I can't imagine having tried to learn craft before I had some writing done. I have 4 (maybe 5?) finished books (2 are novellas).

  16. Yes, I think that is true. I have a novel in a drawer that I almost finished, but not quite. It was a case of not knowing how to write a novel and it never coming together. I may eventually revisit it and see if I can't pull it together… but for now…. in the drawer it remains. I am now almost done with my second one and it is admittedly rough, but I took what I learned from the first “mistake” and applied it to this one. I think I can fix many of its problems in the revision/editing process. I also think that my writing has improved as I've gone along. Taking the long way around… yes, if someone waits until they have mastered the craft, chances are they won't write a word. Part of mastering the craft is the writing.

  17. I really like this post and I think I fall somewhere in the middle. Yes, technique is hugely important, but if you're overly focused on it, it can take all the freshness out of your writing. I have three unpublished books that helped me learn technique without sacrificing voice. I'm not sure if that's the best way to do it…but it's just the way it worked out for me. 🙂

  18. There are plenty of successful books that have poor techniques and go against basic rules. You don't need technique to tell a story. But it can certainly help improve things if you don't have an innate sense of how to say what you want to say. That's all techniques is really, a tool to get the story out of you. Some people need more help with that than other.

    And you're right, often people immerse themselves in the craft to avoid producing finished work because then you might get judged and fail and feel bad.

    Very interesting post.

    mood
    Moody Writing

  19. I'm kind of with you. I trained as a journalist which ought to have given me a head start, at least with the mechanics, but I've found it's actually hampered my efforts. I put a blog post up dealing with, in a somewhat oblique fashion, how my professional background has hampered progress: http://t.co/BcOaiGzVGm

  20. All I have to say is contained in these quotes.

    “There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be.”
    —Doris Lessing

    “Beware of advice—even this.”
    —Carl Sandburg

  21. There is no right or wrong way for a writer to go about developing individual process. It's a journey of reading and writing trial and error. But even more important, it's gaining the confidence to explore different techniques and the courage to say, “no it's great that approach works for you, but it won't work for me.” The goal should never be to emulate someone else but to find the process that fits your unique voice.

    Language, flow, and the rhythm of the words are all vitally important to me. Those things are achieved only via editing. Taking a few thousand words and polishing until the finished product shines is what I love most about writing. That's not true for all writers, and that's fine.

    Voice is learning when to break the rules. When and how those rules are broken will be different for each of us. But somewhere down the line, if a writer cares about the quality of his or her work, technique is as important as story. Can writers get by on story alone? Absolutely, happens all the time.

    VR Barkowski

  22. I finished my first draft of 200K+ before I even looked for stuff like advice. I figured I had an idea and give it a try. If it didn't work, I'd check to see how I could improve. Maybe what I write is crap, maybe not. But I'm not sorry for finishing my story. 🙂

  23. I took creative writing classes in high school and one in college, but nothing beyond that formally, though I wrote my first novel in 7th grade. After a long hiatus, I went back to writing about 5 years ago and have been reading, meeting with other writers, and been to a conference, all while writing about 3 and two 1/2 novels. I don't think learning ever ends. One of the dudes in my critique group has learned a ton on his own and is now published regularly. Working on craft is the difference between writing for fun and writing seriously, IMO. Great, thought-provoking post!

  24. Unfortunately I have seen people so caught up in learning skills they never actually write anything. There will ALWAYS be something else to learn. Also, I've seen people who listen so much to the rules, that they lose their voice. It's sad really.

    Personally I think that you do both together. You can't really learn techniques without putting them into practice. And you can't improve your writing without learning the techniques. I didn't know writing when I started, but I began learning it as I started writing.

  25. Holy gaucamole, we think alike!! I have always said, the first thing a writer works on is voice and plot…the technical stuff can be learned later and is overwhelming when dumped on people too fast. I'd say even for dancers and musicians…there is a bit of natural talent and interest shown long before technique. You don't have to be an expert to dance or sing and some people have a natural propensity that cannot be duplicated no matter how many classes taken. Why crush an aspiring writer under the weight of all the rules?

  26. Well, I wish I could disagree with you can cause some sort of debate, but I can't. I started writing before the techniques, before the rules, before the “you can't do this” and the “you can't do that.” It was after falling in love with writing and discovering my passion for it that I could incorporate rules. And honestly, I'll be “learning the craft” for as long as I'm writing 🙂

    Great post and I love your analogy.

  27. love it. I totally agree about the whole technique thing. In one of the old Star Trek The Next Generation shows, the character Data had learned all the techniques when he played the violin. He could replicate exactly the way the Masters had played them, but he was missing something and he knew it. He was missing heart.

  28. Good stuff!! And yes, it's good to have fun and find your Voice before you get inundated with all the “rules.” Rules can be daunting. Even after 15 or 16 novels under my belt, I try NOT to think of too many rules when I write my rough draft, or it sucks the enjoyment right out and turns the process into routine/a chore!

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