How to Learn Writing

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There are only two methods (that work) to learn an extremely complicated skill such as writing.

Here they are:

  1. Conscious Learning
  2. Unconscious Learning

If you want to become a true expert at writing (without it taking 20 years), you must master both.

What do these look like in real life though?

What is Conscious Learning? What is Unconscious Learning?

Here’s another way to look at it:

  1. Conscious Learning = Deliberate Practice.
  2. Unconscious Learning = Perceptual Exposure.

Conscious Learning → Deliberate Practice

First off, when we talk about Deliberate Practice we are NOT talking about:

  • Practicing longer
  • Practicing harder
  • Practicing with mindless repitition.

Those are bad.

We are going to stay away from those.

So if Deliberate Practice isn’t practicing longer, harder, and with mindless repetition…

What is it? 

What are the steps to effective Deliberate Practice?

STEP 1: Break the skill down into the smallest practicable piece.

This is where so many writers (including yours truly) go wrong.

“I want to write a book!” we say.

So we signup for NaNoWriMo, bang out a novel’s worth of words and…

The whole damn thing is a mess.

From the beats to the scenes to the whole novel…none of it works.

And yet, we do this over and over. It’s like we’re hoping that eventually, magically, one of our novels will be close to readable and we can just clean it up and publish it.

Instead of this madness, let’s do something different!

Let’s take our writing and break it down to the smallest part we can—and practice that!

The smallest practicable part of writing is a Beat.

A Beat is the smallest unit of change in a story.

Typically, a Beat includes a Stimulus and a Response with a micro value shift.

Typically, a Beat is one to five sentences long.

Step 1 of Deliberate Practice in writing is focusing on writing great Beats.


STEP 2: Focus on improving performance.

Yes, the first step of writing is showing up and getting your words in day-in and day-out. At Story Grid, we often talk about the importance of writing 500 words a day.

But once you have that habit down, merely producing more words every day isn’t going to make you a better writer.

I’m a good example of this.

Starting in the summer of 2020, I wrote at least 500 words a day for over 400 days.

It was the most consistent I’ve ever been at writing and now writing daily is a regular part of my life.

But producing words is not Deliberate Practice (remember what I said above… it’s not longer, harder, or mindlessly repetitive).

You have to focus on getting better.

How do you do this in writing?

By understanding Beats.

Once you learn what Beats are, how they work, and what makes a good Beat vs a bad Beat, you can start leveling up your writing performance.


STEP 3: Create a Short Feedback Loop

I already criticized the practice of repeatedly producing manuscript after manuscript that doesn’t work.

There’s another problem with this exercise.

Writing an entire manuscript before getting actionable feedback creates an extremely long feedback loop.

And a long feedback loop is the death knell of Deliberate practice.

We need to create an environment where we receive fast, specific feedback on our writing.

This can’t be done at the manuscript level. The act or sequence level is also too long. Even a scene can be too long to receive good, specific feedback.

And now we’re back to Beats.

Focusing on writing Beats allows you to shorten your feedback loop—exponentially!

Unconscious Learning → Perceptual Exposure

Why is it that world-class singers tend to have children that become world-class singers?

Why is it that great actors tend to have children that become great actors?

Same with violinists and downhill skiers.

What is happening here?

Is there some hidden singing, acting, skiing, or…violining gene that gets passed down?

Of course not.

Instead, these children grow up in a home where they are constantly exposed to expert-level singing, acting, skiing, or violining.

They’re hearing and watching their parents. They’re going to events where they are surrounded by expertise. There is an environment of expertise. When they are young they are exposed to this expertise.

They learn it unconsciously through a constant barrage of perceptual exposure.

And now…

Unfortunately…

We have to talk about chicken sexing.

Here’s an excerpt from the book BADASS by Kathy Sierra:


“Determining the gender of a newborn chick is notoriously tough, but for large commercial chicken farms, the sooner the females are separated from the males, the sooner they can be on the feeding-for-egg-production path. In the early 1900s, the Japanese developed a particular method for chick sexing and a few experts (reliable, accurate chick-sexers) emerged. Great, we’ll have those experts teach others, right? Just one problem: when questioned, the chick-sexing experts didn’t know exactly how they did it. “I just knew.” They were sexing baby chicks with near-perfect accuracy; obviously they were using some specific criteria to do it. But that precise criteria was not fully or clearly defined, and wanna-be chick-sexers couldn’t perceive the subtle unique female chick attributes even when instructed by experts. It was as though expert chick-sexers had superhuman vision mere mortals would never have. ​

The key to this story is not that people did (and continue to) become experts/masters of chicken sexing… the key is in how the existing experts “trained” new experts. ​

So how did they teach new chick sexers? Imagine you’re one of the new recruits. You’re standing in front of a bin full of baby chicks. You’ve been given detailed instructions on how to determine male from female based on visual cues. But after your “formal” training, all baby chicks still appear exactly the same to you. ​

Now you’re told to pick one up and just… make a wild guess. “OK, whatever, male” and you put it in the MALE bin, “OK, whatever, I’ll guess female” and you put it in the FEMALE bin. As far as you know, you’re doing this randomly. After each wild, random, totally made-up guess, the master chick-sexer gives you feedback. Yes, no, no, yes. You still have no idea how the expert “knows,” but you just keep doing this, over and over. And then, eventually, something happens. You begin scoring better than random. You get better. Over time, much better. But you don’t know why. For all you know, you’re still just guessing, but now it’s as if some “mysterious” force is guiding your hand toward the correct bin.​

Of course there are specific, extremely subtle cues that you were using to sort male from female, but you performed as an expert without consciously recognizing the cues.”


How crazy is that?

The experts don’t know how they know.

And the new experts don’t know how they learned.

And yet…

They can perform this extremely complicated task extremely well.

This perceptual exposure phenomenon has been tested and proven over and over in so many fields.

But now…

Let’s apply this idea to writing .

First, it explains a lot about all the bullshit writing advice out there.

I’ve joined MasterClass and gone through some of the courses by famous writers. 

Here’s what I’ve found:

  1. It’s fun to hear from these amazing writers on their writing process.
  2. If you try to actually get better at writing by putting into practice what they are teaching, it’s 99% useless.

Why?

Because the vast majority of writers learned their craft almost exclusively from perceptual exposure.

Sure, they received some good tidbits of writing advice here and there.

But, overall, most of it came via Stephen King’s process of 1) read a lot and 2) write a lot.

So when these writers try to explain what they did to become great at writing, they talk a lot and say a lot of things about writing, but the truth is…

These experts don’t know how they became great at writing.

This is the definition of perceptual exposure.

It’s unconscious learning.

Now that we know this…

How can we optimize perceptual exposure to get better at writing more quickly?

According to Kathy Sierra:To design a good perceptual exposure activity that can help the brain find a deep accurate pattern, use a high quantity of high quality examples that seem different on the surface, but actually aren’t 

1. Chunk it down.

While reading entire books by great writers is helpful, it also takes a long time.

We need to look at lots of different types of expert writing on a regular basis.

2. Do it every day.

We need high quantities of expert writing that we can look at.

3. Focus on the small.

Instead of looking at entire novels or even scenes, we look at lots of line-by-line examples.

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About the Author

The co-host of the Story Grid Podcast and amateur writer.
The Writers’ Common Language: A Shared Vocabulary to Tell Better Stories
by Tim Grahl
Like many beginning writers, Tim Grahl struggled to learn his craft—and even to find the right words to describe his questions and challenges. After reading a library of how-to books,... Read more »
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