Becoming a Writing Craftsman

During a recent car ride my wife and I were listening to The DisUnplugged, a podcast about Disney. It would have seemed odd to a younger me to be listening to this, but the show regularly shares information about how you could make a trip to Disney even better. The podcast we listened to was about confessions people had to the extent they get into Disney. Some of them were quite weird, then I realized I was listening to it all.

One of my favorite things about the internet is that it is so wide and deep, there is plenty of room for people to find a niche they enjoy. The other side of this is that there is a lot of stuff online, and as one of the people making stuff, I’ve often felt like Cal Newport wrote, “I felt like I was stretching to convince the world that my work was interesting, yet no one cared.” The missing cog might be, I’m not good enough.

People listen to the DisUnplugged podcast, because it’s a good podcast. People read Cal Newport, because he’s a good writer. The logic follows that people don’t read me, because I’m not that good of a writer. How then do we get good at something?

Newport suggests taking the mindset of the craftsman, one who understands his work deeply and deliberately practices his craft. I don’t do those things. I’ve taken the writing path that urges you write and read a lot, and then – maybe through osmosis  – one will enhance the other. I don’t doubt this but, it seems like it could be accelerated by practicing more deliberately.

In college I played ultimate frisbee and like other sports, you need to warm up before beginning to play. Most of my teammates started throwing a frisbee to each other ten yards apart, I started at five. During a game I would be throwing five yards and needed to deliberately practice the angle and speed of those throws. Shorter throws required a lot of curve but also enough float, two polar ideals. Later, I moved further away from my throwing partner, and began working on the throws that would typically take place at that distance. By the time a game started, I had practiced nearly all the situations I might encounter.

This was one frisbee skill I knew to be true and would not deviate from. Transferring this idea to another area, like writing, has been more difficult. Within frisbee I started from scratch and had to scratch my way up the skill set through experimentation without knowledge. I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about how things should be, so success and failure were my reinforcement.

With writing though I have plenty of habits and grooves. I use alliteration too much. I use commas too little. I want nadir to mean the opposite of what it does.

In a moment of irony, fit for a story, there was another book was on my desk while I read So Good They Can’t Ignore You. It was Writing Tools, a book with 50 strategies toward better writing and each strategy included a way to practice it. Here was a book that suggested I take time to deliberately practice writing and another book with specific strategies on how to do it.

Newport writes that there are five features of the craftsman:

  1. Identify my skill market, multi or single?  Writing is a multiskill market.
  2. Identify my skill type.  I need to be able to write clearly, with correct punctuation, and with a clear direction. I also need efficient research skills to read critically, filter out the junk, and connect the good.  I need good time management to balance the solitary time of writing and reading with the other things I value in life.
  3. Define “good”. A good piece of writing is one that a non-stakeholder shares online. When someone pays for something I’ve written.
  4. Stretch and destroy. To be a craftsman I need to extend my tool set and be willing to destroy what I thought was good. Newport suggests having a coach.
  5. I need to be patient. Something I identified already and am using as a building block for another writing series.

Thanks for reading this far, I have one request, what do you think makes a good writer?  Do you have any suggestions to building my skills? Any writers you like?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter, @mikedariano.


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