3

I legitimately don't know the answer.


Background

I said something a little silly today, and was told I was incorrect:

Writing requires no skill. You basically just have to write down what you're seeing in your head.

I was told I was incorrect and writing required many skills, and was not a thing that required no skill at all. However, the person I was chatting to had to go, so I was briskly finished with all of that senseless talk and trotted off to stack exchange.

Why did I trot off to stack exchange? I want to know what kinds of skills writing requires. When I'm writing, I write what I see in my head and it tends to be pretty good. To me, that requires 0 skill whatsoever and is basic enough for an idiot like myself to do.

Question

How can creative writing require skill when it's generally just writing down your ideas? You're often going to be doing it in your native language too.

Thanks.

  • Learn a language. Talk to your mind in that language. Write down the conversation in a readable way. – Niladri Chatterjee Dec 28 '16 at 4:36
  • If I could name only one attribute of a superior writer, I'd say they have a knack for making a great verb choice. – BSalita Dec 29 '16 at 16:47
  • Writing takes this skill (ability) above all: reading. Writing is 90% reading (and rereading) - in particular, reading what you are writing. To write well you need to read well. Beyond reading &writing, listening to stories is important to being able to tell a story. None of us starts life knowing how to tell a story, let alone how to read. – Drew Dec 30 '16 at 2:16
8

"Write what you see in your head"? That first takes observational skills. What are you seeing? Are you seeing all of it? Are you also listening, smelling, tasting, feeling? Are you observing your (or the character's) heart rate, blood pressure, nausea, backache, muscle fatigue, excitement?

That all takes descriptive skills. Can you use words to capture all those observations and sensations in a way which reproduces them for your reader? "I was cold and sad" is a description, but so is "The raw December wind blew through the Arthur-shaped hole in my soul and left me numb, only a dull ache remaining where my heart used to be."

The words need semantic skills. Grammar, vocabulary, punctuation, turns of phrase. If you can't form a coherent sentence, nobody will understand you.

Above all, you need a story to tell, so you need plotting skills. "The cat sat on the mat" is not a story. "The cat sat on the other cat's mat" is.

Your plots need people (loosely — anything sentient, so intelligent animals, machines, nonhumans, et cetera), so you need characterizing skills. Are the characters rounded, real, believable, flawed, interesting? Do we root for them? Do we care?

Once everything is down on paper, you have to make sure that other people are getting the effect you want. That requires editing skills. You have to be willing to accept and use criticism to make your work better.

So basically, your correspondent is absolutely right.

  • Minor tweak - the "writing takes no skills" position was OP's, the correspondent was the one arguing :) – Standback Dec 28 '16 at 7:41
  • 1
    @Standback correct. This answer captures the thoughts I must have been trying to produce. Thanks for formatting the points in bold too! – Daniel Cann Dec 28 '16 at 10:31
  • @Standback Oooh, thank you. Holiday reading comprehension fail. :D – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Dec 28 '16 at 12:52
4

I think that the hidden question here is, does writing require teachable skills. Of course writing requires skills. You have to be able to make marks on paper with a stick, etc. The real question seems to be, does it require skills you can't just pick up by living life. Do you have to specifically study writing skills in order to be a writer?

This is really a question about what type of skill writing is.

Is it a skill like walking, for instance? We don't teach our kids to walk. (They don't have enough language to take instruction anyway.) Kids teach themselves to walk. They learn by trying to improve their ability to get from A to B. Some of the intermediate means they discover in the process are pretty funny, before they finally figure out walking. Walking is learnable, but not teachable.

Skills like this are tacit skills. Even after we learn them, we cannot fully express how we do them in words. The body has learned, but not the part of the body that knows how to translate what it knows into words.

Then there are skills like how to ride a bicycle. We teach our kids to ride bikes. We can write down a pretty good description of how to ride a bike. Still, there are parts of bike riding that are still tacit. Even with the best instruction, you still need to fall off a few time before you get comfortable and secure. Bike riding if partly teachable. But people can also figure it out for themselves. It is wholly learnable.

Then there is installing a home theatre system. This is a fully teachable skill. A manual can tell you how to attach all the wires in the right places and if you pay attention, and the manual is correct, you can complete the task successfully the first time. This is a fully teachable task but is not really learnable. You need the information in the manual.

So what about writing. I think we should class it as fully learnable and partially teachable. To say that it is only partially teachable is to say that it is partly tacit. There is part of writing -- or at least of writing well -- that we don't know how to express or explain in words. (Ironic? Sure. But remember that language itself is like this. We don't have a complete understanding of how it works.)

Why is it fully learnable? Because writing is all surface. You can see 100% of what the writer has done. Every part of the technique is there on the page to be learned, even if we can't put what we are learning into words (just like walking). In this sense, it does not require any teachable skills. You could learn it all tacitly.

But, like riding a bike, a good deal of it is also teachable. When we teach skills we break them down and give them names and you can then list specific skills you can learn. In this sense a "skill" is an artefact, something we have captured and defined so we can teach it.

Since writing can be learned entirely tacitly, it does not require any "skills" in the sense of these captured and defined teachable skills. It can be done based entirely on tacit skills, at least in principle.

That said, in practice you are likely to make much more progress if you learn the genuine teachable skills. The trick is to tell the true teachable skill from all the silly rules out there masquerading as writing skills. And you also do have to remember that writing is not wholly teachable. There are tacit elements to it that you only learn by reading and writing.

3

Writing, like any narrative art, requires three things:

  1. All the skills that Lauren Ipsum lists in her answer. These skills can be trained through diligent practice.

  2. Diligence and tenacity. To learn the necessary skills and to overcome the countless obstacles in the path of any artist, you must to have indomitable willpower. This personality trait is partly inherited, partly learned during childhood, and can be acquired during adulthood only with immense effort.

  3. Imagination. This is an aspect of intelligence and appears to be mostly hereditary. Like intelligence, it can be changed only slightly. If you don't have imagination, you might want to seek another career.

0

Even bad writing requires skills. I read my earlier efforts and think how badly I suck, so I edit and move on. Often, I return to revise my revisions only to wonder why I had changed my initial draft because my revision sucked worse than the original. I finally decided writing is like a bucket of sand. You hand the bucket to an agent and they pour out mainly grit. But, just as they were going to toss the bucket back at you, a small precious stone is spotted amidst the silicon grains. The agent pours another handful of sand and spots a small emerald. And again, now a ruby. He looks you in the eye as he hands you back your bucket and says, "You are right, you do generally suck; but not always. Your problem isn't that you are a bad writer, it is that you are inconsistently a bad writer, occasionally you produce a gem. So, go through that bucket and get rid as much sand as you can and work hard to add a few more precious stones and we can talk again." Writing is like prospecting in your mind; and prospecting is back breaking tedious work that produces damn little for hours of effort. But, occasionally a few miners stumble onto the mother lode. That is what keeps most of us digging through sand.

protected by Community Dec 31 '16 at 19:27

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.