On Learning to Write: What Comes First

Archer by I-GUYJIN-I at deviantart.com

How do writers become the writers that they are? How do they become so skillful with language, characters, and setting? From what beginnings do they come from in learning how to craft an elegant story or a rich work of poetry? We must all learn to crawl before we can walk.  But, in writing, what constitutes as “crawling”? Paying attention to the smaller issues, or paying attention to the bigger issues of the work as a whole?

Here in this post, I try to answer some of those questions.  And don’t worry.  The archer picture will be made clear later.

No one wakes up a fully-trained Olympic athlete nor a bestselling novelist.  That’s just not how the world works.  It takes weeks of applying to your craft to even begin to see any improvement, at the very least.  Note that plural: Weeks.  And if not weeks, months.  Years.  Decades.

And even then, you’re still learning.

Which brings me to ask, “How did I learn to write, and how do I learn from now on?”

As a kid, I learned to write by writing.  I wrote in my journals.  I wrote on my computer.  I wrote.  And wrote some more.  I swarmed with big ideas—kingdoms, witches, and warlocks—oh, my! Now that I’m an adult, I can take an appreciation for the finer things such as language, character, etc.

In terms of learning to write, what I always had in the back of my mind was that a story had to have some kind of organization, a beginning, middle, end, and characters to see it through.  Basic, basic things.  Language and diction came later, in middle school, when we were writing essays based on what we read in class and trying to learn what literary devices were.

But now that I’ve recognized that I’m struggling with micro issues like clarity and not using the right terminology, should I have learned that first instead? Could I have prevented it somehow in the past? Or am I learning exactly the way I’m supposed to? Is it the idea of the story or the execution of the idea that’s more important? Thinking big or thinking small?

To all of that, I say this: I think both are equally important.  I don’t believe having skills in one can’t exist without the other.  If you give me language that has every comma in its proper place, but leave me with no idea what you’re talking about, then what you’ve written is pointless.  You’ve written purple prose—language that has tons of embellishments for its own sake, not for the sake of the work as a whole.  You’ve given me a beautiful-looking bow, but I can’t shoot any arrows with it.  It’s weak.  There’s no constitution behind it, and it’s better hanging on a wall than out in the wild.

Writing, first and foremost, is thought, followed by communication in any discipline.  This is the crawling before walking.  Aim, then fire, not fire, then aim.  How you communicate is important, but the what behind what you say is even more important.  Here are two different sentences:

She was ablaze.

She crimsoned.

Each of them say different things, because each of them has a different idea holding them together.  “Ablaze” implies fire and red, yes, but deals more with energy and eagerness, as if lit by fire.  “Crimsoned” also connotes red, but denotes blushing, not that she’s on literally on fire or eager or radiant.  Each word you choose carries certain weight and ideas, ideas that you should have before you even try to communicate.  Otherwise, you might use the wrong word for the wrong purpose.  Even more so, the idea will help you more than likely help you find the right word.

I’d forgive a compelling story riddled with grammatical errors more easily than a confusing story with no grammatical errors.  I read to indulge myself in your idea, worlds, and lands, not because you were proud that you used “somnambulist” in one sentence.  You need to have a reason—an idea—to back up your use of the word.  I need to know that the environment and circumstances warrant your choices.

In other words: learn macro first, and micro later.  That’s what I would do.

But I know that there are writers out there that simply dive into the fray and learn about subtext before they’ve begun making characters.  They follow their hearts, and whatever is successful for them should be what they do.

For those of us that are still figuring this out, I hope this eases the process a bit.


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