Learning is Not Doing

Photo credit: andy_carter on Flickr.

When people ask me for writing advice (and God knows why they ask me in the first place) the first thing I tell them is: go find some books on craft and read them. There are plenty of great ones:

  • On Writing, by Stephen King
  • The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, by Jack Bickham
  • Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell
  • The Art of War for Writers, also by James Scott Bell

And so on. I firmly believe that passion and intuition will only take you so far. There is a craft and a design to good fiction, and it’s not always subjective and elusive. Not every piece of fiction should slavishly follow a wildly complicated, Robert McKee-esque diagram — but there is, all the same, a formula, and even if you don’t want to follow it, you’d be well-advised to at least know what it is.

But there’s a limit.


Like a lot of writers, my shelf groans with how-to books on writing. I have more of them than I’ll probably ever read in their entirety. I have more still in my Amazon wish list, and have gone so far as to ask people not to buy them for me because I already have too many, thus defeating the purpose of a wish list. Now it’s a list of dread and moral horror.

The first four books I put on my Kindle? How-to writing books. All free, because man, if there’s one thing we writers know how to do, it’s how to give our advice away for nothing.

I’ve spent many hours reading up on craft, and it’s served me very well. But there comes a point where you have to set the driver’s manual down, get behind the wheel, and start causing some accidents.

Learning Can Be Resistance

I’ve talked before about Steven Pressfield’s notion of “resistance,” the sneaky deceiver that creeps into our subconscious like Gollum and cranks out excuses for us not to write on its tiny jack-in-the-box of failure. As Pressfield points out, resistance isn’t always obvious. It can take the form of things we think are productive, like:

Creating elaborate filing systems

  • Drawing up a four-page backstory for that cabbie in our novel who shows up in one scene and is immediately shot
  • Drawing plot diagrams
  • Reading about drawing plot diagrams

In other words, self-education on writing craft can itself become an obstacle.

Learning Can Paralyze You

A lot of writing advice is flat-out contradictory, especially when you read around the blogs of your writing peers. Everyone has a process that works for them, and while some elements of fiction are universal and axiomatic, others are highly subjective. If you take everything at face value, you’ll soon find you can’t pen a single paragraph without violating someone’s deeply revered First Rule of Writing.

Does all that information you’re absorbing convey any benefit if it paralyzes you into not writing? Not really, no.

Learning Takes Time

As I said above, you can read the driver’s manual all you want, but you’re not going to really start learning until you get behind the wheel and start the engine. Theory is just theory. It doesn’t mean anything until you put it into practice. I think it’s vital that writers learn the tools of craft, but every hour spent reading writing advice is an hour spent not using those tools. The rubber’s got to meet the road sometime.

How Do You Know?

So are you learning, or stalling, or possibly both? Fortunately, there’s a handy measure that can, beyond any doubt, determine whether all that sassy, irreverent writing advice is doing you any good. Ready? Here it is. In your mind’s eye, check one of the following boxes:

And it’s not multiple choice.


If the answer is “no,” then yeah, you’re stalling. Shut down the browser, put down the book, and get to work. It’s as simple as that. Optimally, take some of the stuff you’ve just learned and kick it into play. Find out if it works for you — because hey, maybe it doesn’t.

Just keep writing. That’s the game we’re all out to win, and, to butcher a WarGames quote, the only winning move is to play.

26 Replies to “Learning is Not Doing”

  1. It seems to me that every area of endeavor has lots of contradictory advice from the experts and at some point we all have to throw caution to the wind and embark on our journey, experts be damned. Which is my fancy way of saying, well said, Sir. I agree with you.

  2. I had a guilty smile on my face when you mentioned the first four books you loaded onto your Kindle–interestingly, the first three or four books I loaded onto my NOOK were free writing advice books…heh.

    Anyway, I agree entirely. There’s an exception for nearly every writing rule and as wonderful as it is to learn about writing by reading writing advice and tips, all of that reading is a waste of time if you don’t sit down and actually apply what you’ve learned to your work.

    Great post, Dan!

    1. Thanks, Ava! They wouldn’t have happened to be a set of free books from Writer’s Digest, would they? Maybe they were the same books. 🙂 How to Be a Writer, Hooked, Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, Getting the Words Right?

      1. Too funny! They WERE Writer’s Digest freebies. I just checked and apparently I downloaded more than I remembered, but I loaded Hooked, Story Structure Architect, How to Be a Writer, Getting the Words Right, Write That Book Already and Write Good or Die. The only reason I didn’t download The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing is because I have the print version and of e-books, I’ve only read Hooked (I may have forgotten about the others until just now)…hmm.

  3. You’re beautiful, Daniel! Great post. This tripped me up big time when I began writing. It was worthwhile, as a newbie, for me to read a couple of good basic books but, as you say, at some point the rubber has to meet the road OR in my case, the keys had to hit the keyboard. I still use a couple of those books as I move through writing a short story; I use them as a checklist just to ensure I’m following a recipe to help the final product be the best that I can make it.

    Really enjoyed this – thanks!!

  4. True thing! That said, I’m about to go get Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell because THAT is what I feel lost about right now and I haven’t really investigated how anyone does that…so I’ll get one and only glance at it a bit…while continuing to write scenes and hope I figure out how to pull it all together. Great post!

    1. It’s a great little book, you could do a lot worse! And writing while learning is a can’t miss proposition as far as I’m concerned. Thanks Mona!

    2. I would really recommend Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks as well. I used to be the world’s biggest pantser and my books showed it. Seeing structure lined out to the degree Brooks explains it actually liberated me to be the god in my universes instead of just hoping it would all work.

  5. I do love my writing books, but I haven’t bought any for a while, because yes, they contradict each other and they are a form of resistance. And like you say, theory is good, but you have to do it. Just as you wouldn’t read all about driving and then assume you can then get in a car and drive around like a F1 racer, or read all about playing the viloin and only then pick up an instrument and expect to play to concert standard.

    I think it’s a shock to many people how much writing they have to do as “practice” before they can produce something people will pay for. Too many of them treat all that writing as having been wasted, because they read about the rare authors who make it big first crack outta the box.

    1. Thanks, Becky. Yeah, isn’t it something like ten thousand hours to mastery? Or, as Robert Anton Wilson said, after a year of practice, you might not be the best piano player in the world, but you’ll probably be the best on your block.

  6. Excellent advice! Having a Ph.D. disabused me of any notion that I needed to take classes to improve my writing – I had the advantage of knowing out of the gate that it would be self-study all the way. And I made sure that every time I opened a craft book, that I had a WiP ready and waiting to practice it on. So far, it’s served me well. 🙂

    Great post!

    p.s. other great craft books: Emotional Structure, Peter Dunne, A Dash of Style, Noah Lukeman.

  7. Great post, Daniel. I sometimes pick up how-to books, and then I chuck them against the wall. Writing is personal. There is a ton of good advice out there, sure, but ultimately each person needs to figure out HOW TO do it in a way that works for him/her. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Thanks for the suggestion of The Art of War for Writers. I like to think of writing novels in terms of battle campaigns, with each character a tactical assault at the gates of Originality, a city I fully intend to plunder.

    1. That’s a brilliant book. One line from it is hovering in front of my eyes as I edit my current WIP: Three great scenes and no dull ones.

  9. I wish I had read more craft books before I wrote my first 2.5 novels. I think it would have saved a lot of mopping up sweat and tear puddles from my floor. As it is, the one that has most enlightened me lately is Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. Since I read it, I’ve been analyzing every movie I watch and every book I read — and lo and behold, they all adhere to it.

    That book has tremendously improved my pacing, I think. Pacing was always my biggest problem because I had a tendency to get a dump truck full of exposition and hit the release lever in the middle of a chapter (or worse, the beginning of the novel). Whoops.

    Eventually you do have to just sit down and write, but I think writing is a lot like drawing/painting/sculpting: you have to learn the rules before you can break them.

    Even Picasso could probably draw a damn fine chair.

    1. I own a copy of Story Engineering and have yet to crack it. I’ve heard a lot of recommendations for it, so I guess maybe I should give it a shot. Thanks for the comment, Emmie, as always.

  10. Gosh. How long can I keep commenting on your posts without my comments just becoming slavish fawning?

    Wonderfully put. I especially like your handy dandy little test. I’m gonna print it out and tape it to my laptop. LOL.

    1. Well, it’s hard for me to object to a little slavish fawning now and then… but seriously, I’m glad you find my posts useful. The joy is in the making, then in the giving.

Comments are closed.