Love of the Writing Craft

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Love of the Craft Q & A

Do I Need to Learn 'the Rules' of the Writing Craft?

Pay attention to what the rules are for, and who teaches them to you.

By Writing Coach David Duggins | Posted May 4, 2007 | Updated July 23, 2019

Q: I write as a hobby but have also started two books. A writing instructor who has taught at several colleges is a well-known expert and author in the writing field. I heard him say that for one to be a good writer, one must take a class and "learn" the proper way of the craft. I feel that doing so would limit my freedom, etc. What do you think?

A: My opinion is biased, since I'm a creativity coach myself, but I think I can offer you some hope that your work will survive the mentoring process — with your integrity and creative freedom intact.

You'll be fine as long as you pay attention to two things: what the rules are for, and who teaches them to you.

While I don't think you have to take a "class" in the formal sense, there is definitely some learning involved in developing your craft. Learned, however, does not mean limited. An intimate knowledge of your craft creates expansiveness and confidence, promoting greater freedom to take chances with your work.

When you tell an artist that rules govern what they do, you usually get the same outraged response: "What? Are you kidding me? I do this to get away from rules, to escape, to do exactly what I want to do! No you're telling me that there are even rules here?"

I understand the feeling. My own approach to teaching fosters a sense of freedom, of willingness to experiment and accept what the experiment produces without judgment or criticism. As a beginning artist, you are most often working only for yourself, to please yourself. Most artists do not feel comfortable showing their work until they have practiced enough to develop confidence.

When you're ready to show something — to complete the circuit and give your work an audience — that's when the rules kick in.

Art is communication. We have an idea; we want to express it in our own, unique way. But we also want to make sure it is understood.

The first draft of a work exists only for you. First drafts form your idea, put major elements in place, and give you a structure to work from. At this stage, inspiration and flow are your watchwords. Whatever higher concept you believe in — God, Buddha, the collective unconscious, the Force — is working through you when you do this. It's the primal, concentrated creative power of the universe at work through you. It's raw power. Don't mess with it.

When you begin your second and subsequent drafts, your watchword is clarity. Here is where grammar, structure, and word choice will serve you. You must find the exact word, the exact phrase, the one expression that will communicate your idea. There is no room for waste. Each word must carry its weight. If you falter, you risk losing your idea — and, therefore, your reader.

Creative people balk at rules because the traditional role of rules is to restrict — to prevent, to deny. It's inherently negative.

Rules function differently applied to art. I got used to dealing with this line of questioning most frequently with my music students, who would say, "what if I want to hold the guitar this way?" or "I'd rather hold the drumsticks like this."

Here's the good news. The rules exist for one reason and one reason only: to show you the easiest way to do something.

The English language is incredibly fluid, relaxed, and forgiving compared to other languages. When I lived in Italy for three years, I learned quickly how formal and structured Italian is. I took two years of German in high school, and promptly forgot all of it. Talk about a jungle of incomprehensible rules!

English, because it's relatively new and strewn with bits and pieces of every other language on the planet, is much easier to deal with. Its rules are more varied and complex, but that just means you have a lot more wiggle room. It's a generous, roomy language. Above all, it's fun!

I've been reading and writing for so long that much of my knowledge of language is a part of my subconscious thinking; if you were to ask me to diagram a sentence, I could do it, but it would take awhile. I could tell you intuitively that something's wrong, but I probably couldn't tell you specifics without research.

I say this not to make excuses, but to illustrate where you need to be headed. You will never worry about "the rules" if you've internalized them so deeply they're part of you unconscious thought process. You'll simply write, knowing that the rules are there to make sure your message is clear. Once you have that kind of understanding of the rules, you can start breaking them for the sake of experimentation, or to achieve a particular effect.

The only rulebook I still use on a regular basis is "Strunk and White's The Elements of Style." I recommend it unreservedly, and have reviewed it on numerous websites. It's only 87 pages long, and written with the kind of clarity we should all strive for.

Now that you know what the rules are for, your next consideration is who will teach them to you. Your choice of instructor is easily as important as the rules themselves. There are "rules lawyers" who will beat you to death with obscure sentence structure, and there are people who will encourage your spontaneity and creativity while giving you an "assist" with the rules when you need it (I, of course, am in the latter camp).

I'm in this business to encourage people. We possess enormous creative energies that can be released and put to good work in our lives. I'm here because I've done it, I love it, and the results have been absolutely fantastic.

Ironically, if I treated writers the way a turn-of-the-century parochial school teacher treats his students, I would probably still get and keep clients — poor, bruised, sad clients, lacking in self-esteem, hoping to salvage their lives through the energy of imagination. They might even get somewhere, but if they did, it would be in spite of me.

Yes, the "dark side" of the instruction and mentorship business exists — teachers who are in the game to justify their personal sense of how writing should work, to serve their ego, to attempt to somehow "control" literature. One of my first writing professors was like this. He scorned everything I wrote, labeling my earliest contributions "silly." One such story, written for his class, was my second professional sale six years later. I sent him an autographed copy and thanked him for teaching me to trust myself over all others.

The dark side is a symptom of the student's mistaken belief that the instructor is in charge, and therefore controls the environment. Western culture reinforces this idea; in school, you shut your mouth and listen to your teacher.

It may seem like the classic teacher-student dynamic, but the economic relationship tells a different story. You paid money for my services. You researched, decided I was the right person, contacted me and offered me a contract.

In short, you hired me. Which means you're the boss. You dictate what happens and what does not happen. In my business, we lay all this out ahead of time, before you spend a dime. That way, we both know exactly what we hope to get out of this relationship.

Before you choose, take time to understand the dynamic going in. The right person can save you years upon years of trial and error. I've done it numerous times in my own career. In the case of my college professor, it didn't work because I had no control over who my teacher was.

Later, I chose the right people, and they helped me tremendously — in learning the rules, and in learning how to effectively break them.

©2007 David Duggins. All rights reserved.

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