Have you ever been told by some well-meaning soul that writing can’t be taught? Have you heard that the ability to create beautiful sentences and convey a heart-wrenching story is inborn, and you either have it or you don’t?
It’s amazing to me that you can walk into any art museum in the world and see students sketching, studying, learning from the masters, developing technique and honing their skill. In music schools across the globe, professors and musicians instruct thirsty learners, passing on what they learned from their own teachers. And so it goes.
Yet, many believe that writing is an innate skill that cannot be attained through similar methods. What they’re missing is what I call “the second half of the equation.”
Fire Plus Algebra
The Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges said, “Art is fire plus algebra.”
It may be that the spark of fire burns more fierce and bright in some writers, igniting inspiration and the stroke of genius, just as it does in painters, sculptors, musicians, and artists of every stripe. But that flame blazes in all of us, to some degree, and can be fanned by passion and dedication.
What’s more, we can apply the algebra through deliberate study and practice, supplying that second half of the equation. I believe writing can absolutely be taught and learned.
I Am Not Alone
One of my favorite writers, Elizabeth George, says this in her book, Write Away:
“I’ve long believed that there are two distinct but equally important halves to the writing process: One of these is related to art, the other is related to craft. Obviously art cannot be taught. No one can give another human being the soul of an artist, the sensibility of a writer, or the passion to put words on paper that is the gift and the curse of those who fashion poetry and prose. But it’s ludicrous to suggest and shortsighted to believe that the fundamentals of fiction can’t be taught.”
And here’s David Farland’s take on the matter, from his Story Doctor website:
“Part of learning to write is to discover what your own gifts are and then play to your strengths. But unless you overcome your weaknesses, you probably won’t get far. For example, the great comic might need to learn to control his pacing, or perhaps the world creator might need to learn how to develop lovable characters. It seems that no matter how much you excel as a writer, there are always new skills to develop.
“Many of those new skills can come pretty easily. As an instructor, I find that if I describe a problem well, suggest solutions, then give the writer an exercise, the writer can almost always gain new writing skills pretty easily. In fact, about 1/3 of the time, I’m amazed at how well the writers do. They almost seem to grow magically.”
And though I don’t have the exact quote in front of me, I remember Stephen King’s remarks on the subject in On Writing. He opined that good writers may not become great writers through studying the craft, but even bad writers can become good writers with enough practice, and there’s room for improvement in all of us.
How to Practice Writing Fiction
The best way to practice writing fiction is to focus on one skill at a time. Choose one area of your writing, study what other writers have to say, and then put it into practice (the best practice is deliberate practice).
What skills should you practice? Below, I've listed five skills that are important for every fiction writer and gathered resources to help you practice. The first two resources for each skill are articles that you can read and apply in just a few minutes. Then, I've included two books that will give you a deeper study of each.
- A Writer’s Cheatsheet to Plot and Structure
- How To Write a Thriller Novel
- The Story Grid, Shawn Coyne
- Wired For Story, Lisa Cron
Point of View
- Point of View Magic
- The Ultimate Point of View Guide
- Characters & Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card
- Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View, Jill Elizabeth Nelson
- How to Use Political Debate to Write Dialogue That Sings
- Critique: 10 Ways to Write Excellent Dialogue
- How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, James Scott Bell
- “Shut up!” He explained, William Noble
- 3 Tips to “Show, Don’t Tell” Emotions and Moods
- One Surprising Method for Creating Emotion in Your Readers
- Writing for Emotional Impact, Karl Iglesias
- The Emotional Craft of Fiction, Donald Maass
- How to Write a Hook by Baiting Your Reader With Questions
- How to End a Story . . . and Hook Your Readers for Your Next One
- Writing Active Hooks, Mary Buckham
- The First Five Pages, Noah Lukeman
Make a Resolution
If it feels like I’m making a case for studying, learning, and practicing the craft of writing, that’s because I am. I’m a big believer and a passionate supporter of the idea. I love learning everything I can about how to write better, how to tell a more compelling story, how to express ideas more clearly, how to create more engaging characters, and anything else that will help me deliver a more satisfying experience to my readers.
The new year is right around the corner, and I’d like to challenge you to make a resolution. Apply the algebra. Create a study plan, determine to learn a new skill, and practice it in the next book or story you write.
Then focus on another skill and practice that one as you keep on writing new stories. This will give fuel to both ends of the equation, feeding the algebra, as well as the fire.
Make 2020 your breakout year for learning the craft and embracing the art of writing.
Do you believe writing can be taught? Do you have more strategies for how to practice writing fiction? Tell us about it in the comments.
Give it a go: right now, for fifteen minutes, practice writing.
For each of the skills above, I've linked to a Write Practice article with a practice exercise at the end of the post. Choose one of those skills, read the article, complete the practice exercise at the end, and share your practice in the comments of that article.
Of course, The Write Practice has hundreds of articles about how to learn and practice a large variety of writing skills. Continue your practice today by using the search box to explore, or come back tomorrow for another exercise.
There are limitless amounts of resources out there and the possibilities are exciting!
Any day where she can send readers to the edge of their seats, prickling with suspense and chewing their fingernails to the nub, is a good day for Joslyn. Pick up her latest thriller, Steadman's Blind, an explosive read that will keep you turning pages to the end. No Rest: 14 Tales of Chilling Suspense, Joslyn's latest collection of short suspense, is available for free at joslynchase.com.