Writing skill has to be learned

There are some people who argue that creative writing can never be taught, since writers are born but not made.

I must say that those who hold that opinion are, as some people would say, being “economical with the truth.”

While it is true that people are born with various talents, it takes training and dedication, to hone those talents so that they can be used perfectly.

It also takes passion, since without it, one will never succeed with, or without that talent.

Our urges, or desires, are signs that we have a calling or a latent talent in us, urging to work on it. A musician will “hear” musical tones, or feel rhythm; an artist or sculptor will “see” images that are crying out to be created; while a writer will get glimpses of story ideas rushing to him almost without effort.

Whether these artists are trained or not, they will soon start looking for outlets to express these urgings, whether they do a good job in it or not. But with training they will be starting on a higher notch.

True, anyone can write a story without training, which separates fiction writing from such activities as performing a heart surgery or piloting a helicopter as Alexander Steele says.

“But a working knowledge of craft is almost always necessary to make a story really good, worthy of being read by all those strangers. You could build a chair without any knowledge of woodworking because you have a good idea of what a chair is like. You would cut the wood and hammer the pieces together, and sure enough you would have a chair. But it would probably be wobbly, unsightly, and destined to break. It certainly wouldn’t sell. The same is true of fiction.”

The rules of writing fiction were not made by any person in particular, but as Steele says, they simply simply emerged over time as guiding principles that made fiction writing stronger, “in much the same way the mortise and tenon joint emerged as a good way to join parts of a chair.”

Let’s say you learn that it’s better to show a character trait than to tell about it. (Show, don’t tell is something of a fiction mantra, like the carpenter’s Measure twice, cut once.) So you go back to your story in progress, cross out the line “Kathy was a dishonest woman,” and insert a moment where you show Kathy doing something dishonest. Perhaps Kathy realizes the teenage cashier has given her ten dollars too much in change but Kathy slips the bill in her purse without a word. Most likely the dishonesty trait will be illustrated more dramatically, more memorably. We’ll gain a more dimensional sense of Kathy as a “real” person. If dishonesty comes into play later in the story, we’ll be better prepared for it. You haven’t grown any wiser or more intrinsically talented. You’ve just picked up some craft. And craft makes all the difference.

In addition to making fiction better, knowledge of craft can actually make the writing easier. There is a theory that if you put a bunch of chimpanzees in a room with a bunch of typewriters, eventually one of them will tap out Hamlet. I have some doubts about this theory but I will say this: if those chimps know something about craft, they will get there faster.

When you work with skill, you’re not floundering so much, waiting to stumble accidentally into something good. Once you have some skill at your fingertips, you’ll look a lot less like one of those chimps, showing teeth and screeching as you maniacally play with that toy of a keyboard.


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