Wednesday, October 14, 2009

How to become a (writing) expert

Yesterday I went to a seminar on the science of education. The speaker was Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman, and he presented some tips on teaching and learning in the sciences that I realized could also apply to writers.

Dr. Wieman's first point was that novices and experts in a field have different belief systems. Novices believe that the things they learn function as individual pieces to be memorized. They believe this information is handed down to them from authority figures. And, their technique for problem solving is to match a given problem to something they had memorized and learned to solve before.

Experts, on the other hand, believe that the content of a subject matter can be organized and grouped in coherent ways. They believe that information is based on the observations in nature and that problem-solving can be approached by concept-based strategies that are widely applicable.

The problem with this difference is that most classes are taught with novices in mind. Individual pieces of information are presented, and teachers expect them to be memorized. And, what happens, is that novices leave a class feeling more novice-like than they did before they started. They are MORE scared of the subject matter they wanted to master.

How does this apply to us?

Well, think about all the things we are learning from each other, all these so-called rules: no adverbs, no telling, no shifts in tense, and on and on and on. If we try to memorize all of these things as individual rules that we must apply because people tell us to, we will forever be novices. If we approach them as novices, we will stay novices.

But, if we are able to organize these rules, know what their function is, then they become tools for solving a bigger problem. We will be able to USE the rules rather than FOLLOW them.

So, I'd like to suggest that we writers organize all these rules. Instead of memorizing them as individual pieces, let's let them fall into a broader category, dominated by the bigger rule, WRITE AN INTERESTING BOOK.

If you are faced with taking out an adverb or making the book less interesting, keep the adverb. If not telling also makes the book not interesting, then tell. These rules are meant to serve a bigger purpose, and we should all keep this purpose in mind.

So, where are you? Do you consider yourself a novice or an expert? And, if you're calling yourself a novice, what will it take for you to change your mind?


  1. Great post, Davin. I consider myself somewhere above novice status but not yet expert (yeah, there's gotta be some middle ground there somewhere). I get and agree with the idea that sometimes an adverb is a good thing. Prologues aren't the work of the devil, necessarily. I guess to get to the point where I could call myself an expert, I need to finish a MS and feel like I've done a good job with it (even if I do have a latent desire to go back and tweak this or that). Since I haven't accomplished that yet, I'm holding off on calling myself an expert just yet.

  2. This is why I hate it when people talk about the "rules" of writing.

    The so-called rules that people espouse are really just guidelines. Will your book be better if you follow them? Most likely. Will it be absolutely horrible if you don't? Not by any stretch of the imagination.

    An adverb is good in certain places. Telling, not showing, is good in certain places. And you're right ... everything needs to be subsumed under the only hard and fast rule of writing: Make it interesting.

    Bravo, Mr. Malasarn. Bravo.

  3. I love this post! I think the thing changes a novice to an expert is time. All those pieces of sparkly knowledge eventually merge into one big wisdom.

  4. I consider myself an intermediate writer. Once I've earned more publishing credits and cement my 'personal style', I'll consider myself an expert.

  5. I consider myself a novice (as my old user name said). But I think that the change will come for me when I actually go through the writerly process on a project. Meaning, finish the first draft and revise it in its entirety at least once. I've yet to do anything beyond finish that first draft, so I still consider myself a novice.

    Great post!

  6. Soooooo . . . you're telling us to break the rules??? Woo-hoo!

    If a word fits - adjective, adverb, that - then I leave it in. If I can change the sentence and make it better by removing - adjective, adverb, that - then, well, I do.

    I think that paying too much attention to the rules can stifle creativity. Rules are there as a guideline and aren't, no matter what 'everybody' is telling you, set in stone. Sometimes, a sentence needs to end with a preposition. Sometimes, a sentence doesn't end with a preposition.

    There's a fine balancing act that we, as writers - novice or experts - must perform every single time we write.

    As for me, I just consider myself a writer who knows a lot, but still needs to learn alot! : )


  7. Great post, Davin! I learned something like this when I was getting my MA in Art History. At first I focused on memorizing pictures, artist names, dates, "isms", historical events of influence as individual pieces of information.

    Once I started seeing art history as an evolving process, it was much easier for me to associate artists and "isms" and dates in the realm of history. Once you see the bigger picture, it's far easier not to get bogged down in the details.

    Thanks for the reminder that this can apply to writing as well!

  8. I love this post and discussion. I think everyone needs to be aware of the rules so they are then aware when it works to break them and when it doesn't. This brings me back to previous discussions about clarity. If your beta readers get confused, you'd best be rethinking any rule breaking you did. First-and-foremost we should write so people get it and want more of it. I'm no expert, but I'm sure filling up my tool box with stuff that makes me a credible journeyman.

  9. This gets to the heart of a lot of problems many of the writers in the blogosphere seem to be struggling with - the rules. Writing an interesting book is the first and foremost goal we should have. No matter how much feedback, or what feedback, I get on Monarch, I should always keep in mind that whatever I change needs to make the book better for ME not everybody else. That's so hard to remember. But experts aren't experts because they're trying to please others. They're experts because they trust themselves and what they've "organized" as you say.

  10. Eric, okay, I'll hold you to that. I hope you can finish the manuscript soon!

    MattDel, I think we're on the same track! Go subsumption! Or something like that.

    Aimee, really excellent point. One thing I didn't take the time to mention in the post was time. And, indeed, this speaker confirmed the famed 10,000 hours rule that has been floating around. But, he assured us by saying it was a steady increase rather than a step function!

    Rebecca, as far as I can tell, you have quite a personal style already! I think your writing is quite distinct.

    Stephanie, Well, it's a big accomplish to finish your first draft, so congratulations on that! I hope you will keep at the revising and get it done!

    Scott, you avoided answering the question, you politician you. :)

    Tere, yes, EXCELLENT point. When you are in that expert mode, everything feels EASIER. That's another reason to get there!

    Tricia, nice point with the clarity. There's a certain order of accomplishment that we have to go through to make a story work. Clarity is probably pretty high up there on the order of things!

  11. Michelle, really excellent point. Yes, that expertise does bring us back to ourselves. When we feel like an expert, we feel confident, and we trust ourselves. That's when we do the work that we will like best.

  12. I suppose somewhere in the middle. I'm not much into focusing in on the finer literary underpinnings that make up the english language as much as I want to play with the words.

  13. As always an excellent post Davin. Interesting correlation between science and writing too. What do I consider myself? Hmmm. Probably slightly experienced in some areas and a novice in others. And I'll probably always be at that level - every time I think I master something about writing, I discover that there's another 10 things I'm a pure novice at!! :)

  14. Great post. I'm somewhere between novice and expert. (Shall we think up a new category?) Good writing is all about breaking the rules when necessary...and then being consistent about how you break them throughout an entire piece. Only then does it feel like a writer's style. I'm reading a novel by Donald Harington right now which is the ultimate in rule breaking, but because he does it right from the jump and continues, I feel at home in his work.

  15. Last night I was working on revisions to "So Honest A Man." Still. I spent two hours fighting my way through eight pages. It was like battering down a brick wall with my bare hands; clearly I need to step away from the ms for a day or two to regain my focus.

    At this particular moment, I feel like a total novice, with no idea what the words I've written even mean, or what the story is supposed to be.

    On better days, while I won't presume to call myself an expert, I do have a larger conception of storytelling, a top-down view of writing where I don't think about grammar or technique, I just write and I simply think about whether the writing works or doesn't (if it's interesting and coherant, that is), and I don't get humg up on the individual components of our craft. I am aware of those components, but I don't think about them much.

  16. Thanks, Davin. Again, great post. I do especially like the correlation between science and writing. It's always interesting to see an unusual analogy in writing blogs.

  17. Fabulous post.

    I wouldn't say I'm a novice. More like Young Penwielder (my new version of Young Grasshopper, and yes, I just made it up, but yes, I'm sticking to it). I'm figuring out the ropes in the goal of the greater plan: Write Good Books. First I didn't know any of the rules, then I followed them all separately, and that didn't work either. Now, I'm learning to obey the chief rule: Write Well. It's less specific, but more accurate, not to mention pithy.

  18. Dominique: Yes, Write Well. And ignore advice from bloggers.

  19. Ahh, the age-old dilemma. Am I an expert or a novice? I'm going to go with expert. I break a lot of rules in order to tell my story, and I think it works for the characters and the novel.

    So yeah. I've taken what I know and shaped it into something I can use.

  20. awesome post :) I think I'd consider myself somewhere in the middle... But I'm becoming more and more expert every day.

    I do think that understanding the traditional "rules" of writing is important - not so that you know to follow them every time, but more so that you understand which ones you're breaking and why it works for you. (If that makes any sense.)

  21. Question? Did somebody ask a question? : )

  22. Great post. I consider myself 'seasoned' - practising professionally and pretty experienced but still learning every day. For every rule there's an anti-rule, some circumstance in which breaking it does the job you want. Telling instead of showing is sometimes exactly what you need, as is a good thumping adverb.

    The trouble with these rules is, sometimes editors have learned them but not fully understood them. One of their biggest blind spots is that they frequently confuse 'show not tell' with 'make a scene of it'.

    The other day I got some notes on some sample chapters. I'd written: 'Peter was the first guy I met at college. I got chatting to him in the queue to get our bed linen, while he smoked a black Sobranie cigarette whose gold tip went with the lone earring in his left ear.' They told me that was telling. Actually, it wasn't. Telling would be: 'I was bowled over by Peter's style.'

    What the editor probably meant was that she thought 'showing' involved making a scene of it, which it doesn't. You can 'show' while abbreviating an event, so long as there are specifics.

    Hell, you guys have probably explained this at length already somewhere anyway. But in summary, I agree with your theory that a novice knows the rules but doesn't necessarily understand them. Understanding comes with practice and experience.

    To go back to your science analogy, doctors talk about medicine as an art; they take the rules of their science and then use them in the real world, where the 'rule book' is rarely enough.

  23. I usually realize the importance of the rule only after I've stumbled over it a few times. I wish I could be more know, learn the rules, follow (or don't) them and end up w/ a brilliant novel. But, it never seems to go like that for me. Stumbling required for growth, I guess.

    And, I'd say I'm on the novice end of the spectrum

  24. Great post. I consider myself somewhere in between at the moment. I guess should own one or the other. I'll own up to the fact that I'm a novice since only been seriously writing for a few years.

    The problem I have is the rules mess up my writing. I'll be writing along fine, then read one of the "how to books." The rules start me questioning what I'm doing and stifles the creativity and imagination. The rules or guidelines make sense when ready to edit versus when writing that very first draft.

  25. I'm somewhere on the scale. I know tons of rules and am hazy on a few. I break them whenever I feel it's necessary (or don't know the difference). Commas especially kill me lately. I used to be pretty good with those, but it seems to me some of those rules are changing or maybe I'm just getting senile.

  26. Couldn't have said it better, Davin. Thanks for a great post. I'm teaching a class in creative writing and will direct my students here. You've encapsulated what I've been stressing to them throughout the curriculum.

  27. I am confident that I have produced writing that is expert level. Unfortunately I cannot always do this on demand. It is also something that doesn't happen in the first draft, and it is easier accomplished in short-form than long-form.

    I think many commentors on this post are being humble in regard to their own abilities. This is how defines expert:

    noun - a person who has special skill or knowledge in some particular field; specialist; authority: a language expert

    adjective - possessing special skill or knowledge; trained by practice; skillful or skilled

    My Webster's New World Dictionary only lists it thus:

    adjective- very skillful

    noun- one who is very skillful or well-informed in some special field

    Expert does not mean infallible. It does not imply that work is done without effort, or that it is the highest attainable skill level. Modesty is fine, but be honest with yourself and your abilities. If you are not confident enough in yourself to consider yourself an expert, should you really be trying to get an agent to sell your writing, and/or a publisher to pay you for your work?

  28. I am in a small class of "novice" writers. Our teacher (see Joe above) pointed us to this blog post. As soon as I read it I understood why. He gives us rules but also different perspectives. Then he says "don't write these down". He is striving to get us to see the big picture.
    Thinking about story, character, rise and fall, on top of grammar, context, point of view, etc. is a huge killer of the urge to write. You have to sit down and WRITE something. If you sit down at your keyboard and think rules nothing will ever come out.

  29. I’ve been away for a while, and just read all the posts I’ve missed. I’m blown away by my own inability to process and comment on all the great questions and thought provoking issues you raise. I’m constantly scratching my head as I say, ‘Wow—I never thought about that—girl, you have a long way to go...’

    This post is actually the only one I can comment on with any certainty, so here it is:

    I don’t consider myself an expert by any means. I have improved a lot, and most of that, over the course of only a few months. I feel like I get a handle on some new rule, apply it in many cases and now, consciously break the rule when I feel justified. Blogs like The Literary Lab have helped greatly, but I have to say—when I read some of these posts, that’s when I realize what a novice I truly am.

    If you’ll keep posting, I’ll keep trying.

  30. Wow, J.B., you flatter us! I think we often feel like novices as well. You'd be surprised how much you really know if you start teach someone else just bits and pieces. :)


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