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Studying versus Doing: How to Grow as a Writer

Updated: Sep 19, 2020

“To know what you know and what you do not know,

that is true knowledge.”

– Confucius

In the writing world, there are two basic classifications of writers: Plotters and Pantsers.  Plotters (i.e., Planners or Outliners) are those who like to plot out the story in detail in advance before they start writing.  Pantsers are so-called because they write “by the seat of the pants,” or in other words, they begin writing without much of a plan, and let the writing take them wherever it wants to.

Until recently, I didn’t even know these terms existed, much less which one I was.

I have been both, and still do both at different times, but today’s post is not about advocating one or the other. Whatever your writing process looks like, there is always room to learn and grow, and today’s post is about the learning process itself, and the importance of finding the balance between knowing and doing.

None of us know what we don’t know.  If you’ve ever dived deep into a career field, you’ve likely experienced this on multiple levels, the discoveries, the “aha”-moments, the light bulbs clicking on as new information connects to things you’ve already known and experienced, and you begin to see your work – and the world – in a new way.  

Knowledge is important.  But here’s the thing: to truly know something, not just surface knowledge but deeply knowing it, you have to do more than study it.  You have to apply what you’ve studied through practice, so that you are no longer just a scholar but a master of it.

Think about it.  A med student might know how to perform surgery based on what he’s learned in classes, but would you want him performing surgery on you if he’s never practiced it?  If he’s never gone through the actual motions on a dummy or a cadaver, if he’s never assisted in a real surgery before or never even used the tools, would you feel comfortable going under anesthesia with that surgeon wielding the scalpel?  I know I wouldn’t.

Writing is a craft.  It is art, yes, but it also a skill honed and mastered through practice. Even if you are the most naturally-gifted writer on the planet, I’m willing to bet that your writing still improves with practice.  With doing.  Because like walking – which most of us do without even thinking – writing is a learned skill that takes practice to master, even if it’s wired into us to do it.  (If you’ve never seen a baby practice walking, this might not make as much sense to you.  Watch some YouTube videos and you’ll see.)

And here’s the interesting paradox:  The more you practice what you’ve learned – what you know – the more you’ll probably realize what you don’t know.   When you get stuck halfway through that novel, when you stumble over awkward dialogue, those are the moments you realize the areas in which you still have room to learn, and then you can dive back into studying, analyzing others’ writing, learning – then apply it until you master it and ride the new wave until you hit a wall and realize it’s time to seek fresh knowledge again.  It’s a beautiful, unending cycle that will grow you by leaps and bounds as a writer.

“Knowledge is power.”  The question is, why is it power?  Knowledge is powerful because it equips you to do something.  To act in a way that changes you, your quality of work, or even the world around you.  Knowledge without application is like kindling carefully stacked for a campfire that never receives its spark.  It is a cold pile of wood with the potential to be a burning bonfire.

As a writer, you can learn so much from reading quality writing (or even bad writing!), from talking with other writers, and from studying the craft.  But if you never take that and actually write, then that knowledge is not achieving its potential.  In order to be a writer, you must actually write.

Seek knowledge.  Learn your craft.  Be a professional who keeps up on trends and developments in your field, who is smart about your work and knows it front and back.   Follow writing blogs, read books on the craft, keep up with what’s successful and working.  But then apply what you’ve learned, and hone it until you own it.  Practice until you don’t just know it front and back, you can do it like it’s second-nature.

Take your knowledge and actually use it.  Don’t just be a stack of wood waiting for the spark.  Ignite that spark that’s inside you, and set the world ablaze.

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