One Man's Opinion: What it Takes to become a Successful Writer.
|By Nico Ryan, Writer/Editor
Writing is far more like learning how to become proficient at playing a musical instrument than learning how to develop into a skilled snowboarder.
Let’s take these items in reverse order and start with snowboarding.
Snowboarding is a “front-end heavy” sport in the sense that you face a rather drastic learning curve when you initially encounter the activity, particularly if you don’t have much, or any, experience with skateboarding, surfing, or wake-boarding (or, to a lesser extent, skiing).
If you’ve never tried to keep your balance and successfully maneuver across a changing landscape (e.g., pavement, water, or snow) whilst having both of your feet strapped into, or resting on, a single board then you’d likely find the experience of snowboarding down a hill very alien and unsettling, at least during your first “taste” of it.
Snowboarding is mostly (but not exclusively) about the body:
Learning how to keep your balance on the board;
Figuring out how to slow yourself down when you get going too fast;
Understanding how to “carve” back and forth; and
Getting comfortable with “hopping” or “one-foot-sliding” across the bottom of the hill whilst trying to get onto the chairlift.
These are some of the physical skills that you must master when learning how to snowboard.
Most “shredders” will tell you that you need at least one full day on the hill in order to develop the basic skills required to successfully make it down the mountain without falling over every few seconds like “newbies” do.
My own experience suggests the same.
When you first start learning how to snowboard, you might be given a bit of instruction or guidance from more experienced riders and/or from officials at the resort.
However, regardless of what these folks tell you in advance, it becomes a “whole new ballgame” as soon as you slap that board on and start trying to maneuver about.
No amount of instructional training can adequately teach you in advance what it feels like to actually go snowboarding.
Moreover, the more you snowboard, the more skilled you become.
Because heading down the hill over and over again allows you to learn, practically and in real-time, the precise stances, weight distributions, and muscle movements that you need to execute in order to effectively adapt your body to the demands of the sport.
This is not the same process according to which novice authors become better writers.
Rather, your writing capabilities evolve and become more polished over time in the same basic way that a wannabe musician becomes progressively more skilled at playing a musical instrument — that is, by:
Studying and applying music theory (principles of good writing) and working with experienced musicians (experienced writers) who provide you with expert feedback on which bits of music theory (writing theory) you should learn and which aspects of your playing (your writing) you need to adjust.
Let’s take the case of learning how to play piano as an example.
On the one hand, piano playing shares some attributes in common with snowboarding.
Most obviously, both activities involve learning how to execute precise bodily movements.
A pianist must learn how to sit at the bench, where to place her fingers, how much pressure to apply to the keys, how to use the foot pedals, and so on.
Moreover, she must figure out how to perform these movements both in general and for each specific song she plays.
Unlike snowboarding, however, the effective playing of a musical instrument is literally the act of putting music theory into practice.
The music that adroit piano playing produces is the product (outcome, manifestation, etc.) of the pianist’s demonstrated ability to read and “play” the music sheets in front of her, which signifies the practical application of her knowledge of music theory.
In other words, any given song played properly sounds pleasing to the ear because it respects the elements of music theory according to which it was originally (or could now be) written.
Even if a musician is a self-taught artist who plays beautiful music “by ear”, her music is still the product of music theory.
What about folks who develop into brilliant musical artists despite having little, if any, formal music training?
First, I suspect that they represent the (extreme) exception rather than the norm.
In other words, most world-class musicians have probably spent innumerable hours studying the fundamentals of music in order to effectively cultivate the skills they now possess.
Second, I’m willing to bet, so-to-speak, that if you were to examine each one of their histories more closely then you’d find that in most cases, if not all, it’s possible to identify factors other than merely picking up an instrument and playing it aimlessly that contributed significantly to their musical development:
They had a loved one or close friend who was a talented musician and who taught them how to play;
They were raised in a “musical family” and were thus exposed to music from an early age (allowing them to naturally develop “an ear for music”);
They sang in a church choir;
They watched instructional how-to videos (e.g., how to play specific chords or songs) on YouTube and/or other video sites; and so on.
These types of experiences “prime” a person to flourish into a capable musician once he or she starts “doing the damn work” of practicing day-in, day-out.
Somebody with no formal musical training and no meaningful exposure to, or experience with, music is likely to find it exceedingly difficult to try and learn how to play a musical instrument without seeking out the expertise of established musicians.
Does this mean that it’s impossible? Certainly not.
It does, however, mean that there’s no reason whatsoever to make it the foundation of advice given to “green” musicians who want to expand and refine their musical abilities.
Analogously, the fact that it might be possible for a small number of people with little-to-no formal writing experience or training to “force themselves” into becoming all-star writers via nothing but sheer “grit” and a relentless commitment to writing every single day doesn’t justify advising aspiring writers that they too should follow the “just write!” path if they want to become more talented authors.
To get back to the example of the skilled pianist who plays “by ear”, if she were to try and teach another person how to play the piano, she would inevitably have to draw on music theory in one form or another in order to successfully show her trainee why things must be done in certain ways.
It would be extremely unlikely, if not impossible, for:
A musician to play a bit of attractive music on a piano, turn to a non-musician and say, “that sounds nice, right? Now you play something that sounds good too!”; and
The non-musician to then magically produce his own captivating music merely from having heard the pianist play something agreeable (unless, of course, the non-musician were to simply replicate a few of the notes that he had just heard).
The practical demonstration of playing the piano — “first I play C, then D, then D sharp, then F, and then G” — is merely a description of the activity taking place whereas the music theory justifying the playing of those specific notes — i.e., the C minor scale — explains why the resulting music sounds so appealing to the ear.
As far as I can tell, in order to become world-class piano players the vast majority of people require a mixture of theory and practice:
Studying chords, scales, and the like is necessary for learning how to read music and for understanding why music operates as it does; and practicing specific bodily movements is necessary for “ingraining” into “muscle memory” a host of particular actions involving the hands and feet.
However, the practical component involved in learning how to play piano does not consist of the random and chaotic smashing of keys and pedals with one’s hands and feet; instead, it consists of theoretically informed and planned-out movements that give rise to music that “makes sense”.
The pianist is able to produce music that’s pleasurable to hear because her practical movements are the result of her understanding of musical systems (i.e., scales and the like) and of her ability to read sheet music properly.
The exact same principles hold for becoming a better writer.
It’s not the concrete practice of writing as such that opens up the possibility to further hone your craft and gain more insight into what the world’s most successful authors do in their work that you don’t.
Instead, it’s everything operating behind that activity, i.e., all the intellectual choices, analytical assessments, and rule-informed judgments that structure and justify which words, elements of grammar, ideas, and arguments go where and why:
Contending that novice writers can sharpen their skills and transform themselves into more competent authors if they “just write!” each and every day is akin to posting that famous (and hilarious) GIF of Jim Carrey smashing random letters on a keyboard and telling onlookers, “watch what Carrey does, do the same thing, and get better at writing!”
In some ways, learning how to play an instrument is actually easier than learning how to write extremely well because practically engaging with a sound-producing device like a piano, cello, or guitar generates a kind of immediate and useful feedback that writing on your own doesn’t.
Unless you’re “tone deaf” or thoroughly inexperienced with the sounds of music, you’re probably capable of hitting a few keys on a piano and stringing together a short number of pleasant-sounding notes.
If your ears are sensitive enough to what music “should” and “shouldn’t” sound like, you can likely tell the difference, at a very rudimentary level, between something that makes people tap their toes and something that makes them say, “that’s not music”.
The same, however, doesn’t apply to novice writers “locked away” in their rooms, furiously writing everyday in an effort to somehow boost the sensibility, intelligibility, and persuasiveness of their text.
Because an analogous form of instantaneous and meaningful feedback doesn’t exist.
If it were possible to reliably assess your own writing bit by bit in the same way that a budding musician can discern whether he’s hitting the right keys on a piano as he learns a new song then practice would make perfect, i.e., “just writing” more, and more often, would be the secret to improving as an author.
Again, though, semester after semester of unimproving college and university students evidences that this simply isn’t the case.
If you’re routinely making mistakes in your writing, such as:
Committing spelling, grammar, and syntax errors;
Presenting your ideas in haphazard, disconnected, and incomprehensible ways;
Invoking logical fallacies; and
Creating contradictions in your own arguments…
…then why in the world would you, or anybody else for that matter, ever expect that you’d be able to rectify these mistakes by making them more often?
That’s simply absurd.
It’s also why the “just write!” prescription — absent of heavy qualification — makes very little, if any, sense.
Merely going through the motions of writing 500 words (or whatever the newest target number is) every single day will not make you a stronger writer.
It’s what you do with those 500 words that matters far, far more:
Sending them to a writing coach for critique;
Posting them online to receive feedback from others;
Actively comparing them with your writing from, for instance, a year ago and analytically exploring how your prose and style are (hopefully!) improving;
Working them into successive drafts so as to present them in more polished and defensible forms by upgrading your vocabulary, learning about and applying the lessons of logical fallacies, etc.; and so on.
Think about it like this:
Your vehicle wouldn’t all-of-a-sudden start running more reliably and/or more efficiently from driving it three or four times as far every week if you were to continue putting the same low-grade gasoline into it.
Your engine would perform better only if you were to start feeding it higher quality fuel.
Likewise, your writing will not magically improve merely because you increase the number of words you put to paper or screen every x period of time.
You need to upgrade how you think about writing if you wish to cultivate genuine changes in your abilities.
Most people, I suspect, don’t have the time, patience, or aptitude to construct detailed programmes for helping aspiring writers effectively hone their craft — hence the popular yet virtually meaningless directive for wannabe writers to “just write!”.