Competence, Craftsmanship and Art in Writing

In preparation for a talk on writing at Tallahass Community College last spring, I gave a lot of thought to writing and how writing improves over time. I’ve been a “professional” writer–I’ve been paid to write–for more than two decades now, and my writing abilities have improved dramatically.

Indeed, I remember my first English paper in Freshman composition at Colby College “earned” a D+ and the not so helpful comments that my writing was “unorganized and incoherent.” Fortunately, that just spurred me on to work on my writing, always opting for written assignments. Now, I have successfully published hundreds of articles, five nonfiction books, and three novels. At least the editors at these newspapers and publishers think my writing has improved!

But what is good writing? When aspiring authors ask published writers for advice, our answer is inevitably: Write! And write some more!

This advice is spot on, and it’s worth delving a little bit more into why learning to write well depends critically on writing a lot.

Let’s start with Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers and a post I wrote earlier about when to approach literary agents (Nov 10, 2011). Gladwell talks about investing 10,000 hours in an activity (about 5 years working full time) before you can become expert in the field, and literary agent Ann Rittenberg translated that into writing. In short, don’t go to her with your first novel, unless you’ve already been writing for years before hand.

The point is that practice at a new skill or activity is essential to master it. Rarely does one become a great writer right outside the womb. I’ve lost count of the number of published novelists who have one, two, three or more unpublished manuscripts sitting in a dresser drawer because they weren’t good enough to publish. (I have one complete one, and two incomplete manuscripts.) Even in nonfiction, successful authors usually have a background as a writer–either writing lots of professional articles or, more commonly, working as newspaper reporters or editors.

This activity is essential to build up basic skills, or competence in writing. And it can’t be learned through osmosis or reading, both of which are passive activities. Good writing comes from active engagement in the activity of writing–testing out stories, logic, characters, plots, etc. Failures are much more common than successes.

Once basic skills are learned–remember learning basic lab skills in high school science before conducting real experiments?–then the writer can build on this basic skills to weave more complex stories, insight, or layers to characters. This is where the author becomes a craftsman; the writer can take a basic story, theme, or character, and add nuance and complexity to create something unique and different beyond the basic structure learned in the classroom (or on their own).

Once a writer develops their craft, they might be able to elevate their storytelling to an art form. This is where something truly unique and different emerges. Defining art is difficult, but you can usually detect art when your reaction is something along the lines of: “Wow, that was great, and I coudn’t have done that.” An artist creates something that can’t be duplicated because their style, perspective, and approach is so different that no one else shares enough of their personal DNA to reproduce it.

Authors who have raised their writing to an art form don’t rely on a formula even though formulas can create commercial succcess. Most successful authors are amazing craftsman, but they aren’t necessarily raising their craft to the level of art. And, to be fair, many authors aren’t interested in art.

Nevertheless, this framework for thinking about writing–going from competence to craftsmanship to art–may be useful for those embarking on a new found writing career.

This framework also helps explain why the admonition write, write, write is so important, and why successful writers are the ones that persevere.

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