Writing Has a Learning Curve, Just Like Any Skill

Learning Curve

This week I went to visit a new writer’s group. Quite a few people there were lamenting their latest rejections (as all writers do), but one person’s complaint really struck me. “The rejection said my writing didn’t show the required skill for publication. How can it not? I’ve been writing all of my life. No skill. That’s just stupid.”

Probing further, the lifetime of writing this person was speaking of was not fiction. It was the mundane stuff like letters to friends, school papers, work memos and the like. The rejected project was a first novel. While everyone sympathized with this person, I took a more constructive approach. (At least I thought it was constructive. Possibly it was received as critical.) I pointed out that writing is just like any other skill. It takes time to learn.

We writers tend to make the same assumption this person did: “I’ve been writing in some form all of my life, so fiction or book-length non-fiction should be easy.” It’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking that writing is somehow innate. We know basic English, after all, and we’ve been reading the works of others for decades. It should simply be a matter of putting the words together and turning out something salable on the first try.

But writing is no different from any other skill. There is a learning curve. Think of it this way: I’ve been “cooking” in some form for many years. But there is a big difference between pizza and coqu au vin. Just because I can make the former doesn’t mean I can make the latter, at least not without a few mistakes that even the dog won’t eat.

Any other skill is the same way. You don’t go from buying a pair of skis and hitting the bunny slope to the Olympic downhill in one season. You don’t buy a pair of ice skates, learn to stand up, and then say, “Well, that’s it. Now I can do a triple axel.” Maybe basketball is an even better analogy. Plenty of people play street ball or shoot on a backyard hoop from the time they’re children. But playing in the big leagues is a whole other beast. You have to be incredibly fit. You have to learn to play on a team and shoot in contested situations. (Things solo play on a backyard hoop will never teach you.) There are finer points to master on offense and defense that only a good coach and years of practice will teach you.

And the thing is, you wouldn’t expect to do any of this on the first try. You’d say, “That’s nuts,” if someone said you could jump from the basics to the advanced skills in one try. Even if you’ve been playing since childhood, you’d probably laugh if someone said you could go from shooting basketball in your backyard to the NBA. (Unless you’re suffering from delusions of grandeur.)

We recognize the need for proper training, progression and improvement in any other area except writing.

Writing seems like it should be the exception. Words are in our lives from the time we’re born. We see them every day. Stories surround us and it seems like it should simply be a matter of osmosis. We learn our language in school, we see how others put together a story, so it should be no problem for us. It’s not like there’s a physical aspect to master (other than that of getting your butt in the chair every day). We don’t have to bulk up or master some precise skill like jumping in figure skating. Everything we need to know is taught in school, right?

Wrong. Even after you’ve mastered the basics of grammar (and more than a few people don’t even get that far in school), you still have to master the art of storytelling. How do you get from point A to point B without boring or losing your reader? How do you make characters that people care about? There’s a learning curve to mastering pacing, dialogue, and plot. You don’t wake up one morning and say, “Hey, I passed my English test. Now I can write the greatest novel ever.”

(Well, there are the incredibly rare exceptions but even so, they didn’t wake up that day with only a rudimentary grasp of grammar and punctuation. They probably paid incredible amounts of attention to writing in school and, if pressed, would even admit to writing a few things on the side before they ever attempted a novel. The person who says, “Hey, I’ll write a novel today,” and crafts something salable is as rare as a northern hairy-nosed wombat.)

Writing takes practice, and lots of it. And even once you start turning out salable work, you can still keep improving. I hate to break it to you, but you’re never perfect. Even the big name, bestselling authors aren’t perfect. J.K. Rowling couldn’t sell her adult mystery series under a pen name because it wasn’t that great (in the eyes of publishers). It wasn’t until people figured out that it was her that publishers started tripping over themselves to get it.

What’s sad is that we writers love to beat ourselves up over our perceived “failure.” We take our souls to the woodshed because someone said we don’t have writing skill. But in no other field would we expect our first effort to be a smashing success. Everything takes time to learn and master. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a sport, language, craft, cooking, or driving. Or writing.

So don’t beat yourself up if someone says, “You don’t have the skills required.” That may be true, but you should add, “Yet” to the end of that sentence. You can learn what you need to know. Practice will improve your skill set. Eventually you will get where you need to go, as long as you dedicate the time and seek to improve your weaknesses. But if all you do is whine about how it should be easy, or how the people rejecting you are stupid, you’ll never get there.

(Photo courtesy of stevepb)

2 thoughts on “Writing Has a Learning Curve, Just Like Any Skill

  1. mirkabreen

    This reminded me of the late great Sid Fleischman saying that “the first three years are tuition.” I didn’t like reading this when I had just started, but he was right.
    I am, however, surprised at any rejection worded as you conveyed here. “…writing didn’t show the required skill for publication” is astonishing as a stated reason. We have all read PUBLISHED material that was beneath par.

    1. Jennifer Derrick Post author

      I was surprised anyone would bother. Usually in those cases you just get a form rejection. I didn’t read the work in question, so I have no idea whether it was so far beyond the pale that an editor felt compelled to comment.


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