Essential writing skills: climbing the hidden mountain of writing

It’s always seemed to me that the biggest challenge for beginning writers is the hidden mountain. The skill challenge that isn’t obvious when starting – but which everybody crashes over, relentlessly, on the way. After all, everybody can write…can’t they?

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.
A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

Actually, no, it’s a learned skill like any other – one where the skill challenges are not obvious.

In past years, the agent-publisher model acted as a filter and kept the ‘learning curve’ books out of the market. Frustrating, an eternal source of angst for beginning writers – but it was a quality gateway.

That’s changed now. Anybody can publish. And many do, often without having the skills to realise what is wrong with what they’ve written. I’ve seen books where the mechanics of the writing – and hence the style – have got more competent as the author’s gone on. Ouch.

It’s understandable. Scrabbling to get the words, the content and the structure all together if you’re on a learning curve is like trying to pin down jelly, and it’s something long-standing writers don’t much have to confront. Why? Because the act of becoming a long-standing writer also means they’ve nailed the craft. They don’t have to think about the mechanics of writing or how to express their ideas; it’s become part of their soul.

They’ve surpassed the elusive million-word, ten thousand hour hurdle and become ‘unconsciously competent’ at the task. That lets them concentrate on content – and on style. That’s how J K Rowling – who is an absolute master of written styling – was able to write as Robert Galbraith, with totally different voice and style to Harry Potter. It’s still hard work, of course. As Hemingway put it, you sit down at the typewriter and bleed.

My answer? Until you get there don’t be afraid to throw something out – put it in a drawer, permanently.

Sure, you’ve sweated blood and tears over that piece of writing. But it’s part of the learning curve. Look on it as an exercise. The next one will be better. And the one after that better still. You’ll know when you’ve got there.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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2 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: climbing the hidden mountain of writing

  1. I suspect this is the most important aspect of writing when one begins. I don’t really know any other way of mastering the mechanics and learning one’s voice other than word by word. That, it seems, is what allows us to sit down and bleed, day by day. Great post, Matthew!

    1. Thank you – and yes, it’s the only way. There are no short cuts. That said, occasionally an author is ‘discovered’ and becomes a sensation overnight…but is their work actually quality, necessarily? It could well be, shall we say, fifty shades of terrible. I wouldn’t object to the royal cheques, of course…

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