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Is writing a craft?

Why don’t many writers master their craft? It never dawns on them because they don’t think there is a craft to master—and that’s because they don’t realize how difficult it is to craft a good work of fiction or non-fiction. At some point, if they get involved with a credible writing group or organization, the realization will hit home that there is a craft to master.

Master of none …

I remember going to the 2003 Florida Writers Association’s conference thinking I had mastered it all. After hobnobbing with fellow writers—and professional agents, editors, and publishers, the rude awakening sent me home determined to fix my chasm-like deficit. In 2004, after a hard year of studying writing, I returned to the conference thinking again that I had mastered the craft and again went home realizing I still had a long way to go.

Of course, there is the writer that attends such writing gatherings and remains oblivious to her or his lack of writing mastery. They plod on and on staying at the same rudimentary level. The lesson in that should be: the astute writer has a desire to improve, and not only to reach a level but to always seek improvement. For, if anything, going to conferences should instill that mastering the craft of writing is a never-ending, lifelong quest.

There is a certain satisfaction in every new thing the writer learns. Each new bit of writing knowledge will make the writer’s fruit-of-mastery that much riper.

What if we compared writing to …?

Let’s apply this phenomena to another craft—carpentry. And let’s pretend there is a character that interacts with this new carpenter-to-be. We’ll call the interacting character CS.

Carp jerks straight up in bed one morning. “I have a scathingly brilliant idea!”

CS rolls over next to him and yawns. “What’s with you? You’re up early.”

“I’m going to do something I’ve always wanted to do.”

“Go back to sleep?”

Carp smacks CS’s thigh. “No. I think I want to build my own house. It will be the house of my dreams, built to my exact specifications.”

CS laughed. “So, what makes you think you can build anything?”

“There’s nothing to it. You slap pieces of wood together and fasten them in any number of ways.”

“That’s it? How absurd.”

“No, it’s not. For every problem I encounter, there’s probably more than one way around it. I’ll just jump right in and improvise my way around any difficulties.”

CS sits up and stretches. “There must be more to it than that.”

“What’s to know? I can hammer a nail into a piece of wood. I know how to use a level. I know how to measure with a measuring tape. It’ll be a cinch.”

CS yawns again. “Famous last words.” She lies down. “Just forget it and go back to sleep.”

The disaster begins …

By now you may have guessed that CS stands for Common Sense, which our would-be carpenter lacks. He talks himself into how easy the task would be to build his dream home by looking at it in an oversimplified fashion. In the world of special education, teaching the handicapped, there is a concept known as task analysis. Each special education teacher learns to take everyday skills and break them down into individual tasks ordering them by prerequisite steps. This is what writers should do to master their craft, not just grab pen and paper, or computer and keyboard and start writing.

Task analysis for writers …

Task analysis in writing does not deal with creativity—only the mechanics of writing. The mechanics are the tools, like the measuring tape, hammer, and nail for the carpenter. It still takes creativity to assemble the final product through the utilization of the tools—and creativity can only be developed and not taught. We all have a certain amount of creativity within us, and it must be exercised along with the study of writing technique to increase both.

Creativity is like a muscle deep within us. If we “work out” employing the proper use of our tools, it will develop to the fullest of its potential. I believe that most of us have enough writing creativity to produce a decent and worthy novel, if developed properly. However, that is my optimism.

Show me your credentials …

There is one big difference between carpentry and writing. In carpentry, there is a whole licensing aspect to becoming a master carpenter. There is an equivalent in writing—the MFA (Master of Fine Arts). When you master the craft of carpentry, you are licensed and can practice your trade, build good houses, and have them purchased by happy consumers. If you want to be a writer, you don’t need an MFA—and there’s the rub as Shakespeare would have said.

A writer can study the craft of writing over years without being degreed. A reader doesn’t check the credentials of a writer. The writing speaks for itself. If the writer takes the effort to learn the craft and has the requisite, intangible talent, they will turn out well-crafted works of writing; but most writers don’t do that.

Most writers know how to write words, sentences, and paragraphs—so what’s to know, right? When Carp said, “I can hammer a nail into a piece of wood. I know how to use a level. I know how to measure with a measuring tape,” he meant that he had the rudimentary knowledge of how to do the individual tasks involved in building. Wouldn’t we all expect to cringe when Carp finished his house and showed it off?

Do writing novices read …?

It never fails to amaze me when some would-be writer gives me a peek at their “dream house” of writing and it strays drastically from anything resembling a properly formatted work of writing. It’s as though they never read a book in their lives—nor seen the interior of one.

Their paragraphing, use of quote marks, indentation peculiarities—I want, but don’t dare ask them, “Have you ever read a book before?” It seems to me, and I did this when I first started writing descriptive works back in 1998, that if someone wanted to write a book, they’d look over a real one to determine things like—there is a standard indent to paragraphs, the terminal punctuation in dialogue most always goes inside the end quotes, and there is usually no line skipped between paragraphs. Almost any book is a model for that kind of problem solving—and I won’t even go on about a beginner’s books written in text message or Internet formats.

Even if a writer masters the mechanics of writing, there are the intangibles; and it seems as though not everyone is gifted in them. These include: shaping a plot, representing and manipulating the internal psyche of a character, the ability to jump from head to head during dialogue, managing the character movement and gestures, applying body language, building a scene to a climax, the perspective of the reader, arriving at a logical, yet surprising conclusion in the story, and meting out the appropriate amount of exposition in just the right places.

Do it right!

So—be a good writer—a properly skilled writer, and realize that there is a craft to master; and that it will take some time and a great amount of effort. Oh—and when you do achieve a high level of mastery, you should be duty bound to pass it forward—because that is how you learned.

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