On the Obligation to Perfect One’s Craft

Imagine two spheres, of a different color, interpenetrating each other.

This is the writer. Writers are instruments of craft, and that craft comes to manifest in two distinct spheres of being.

The genius writer, when s/he writes, writes essentially from two different modes of being: one that which makes writing sheer art, and the other which makes writing sheer science; in the best fiction, there is no writer who is without both of these dimensions, actualized to their full potential, in their own, distinct way.

I wanted to introduce this distinction here, and leave writers with a bit of a challenge, moving forward, as I do when I teach classes on plot and pacing. (See resources available from those classes here.)

I begin with this radical but absolutely vital distinction between the art and the science of writing:

  • the first, on one hand, is that never-teachable spark of sheer genius (the same way that Mozart has genius before music, and da Vinci genius before the visual arts, and Michael Flatley and Jean Butler genius before tap dancing, and Benedict Cumberbatch before acting, and Steve Jobs before tech/entrepreneurship, and Stieg Laarson before thrillers);
  • the second, on the other hand, is the rigor of coming into possession of the knowledge of technique with its theory, as well as the practice that underlies learning to bridge theory (i.e., the three-act structure with notions of pacing with notions of world-building) with your writing as it manifests on the page itself.

Not all writers will bear the first spark, and there is a huge spectrum by which this kind of giftedness can manifest: giftedness in prose, in imagination, in the study of the interior (say, with a gift for empathy), and more. This is not a problem, though I would without hesitation argue that these are the writers who deserve primacy of publication, of space on the bookshelf, and of attention.

Writing deserves to be magical, and to be considered as such. Poor writing changes tastes, and it ought not to, and so we ought to build communities with a taste for magic and genius in terms of that which the best writers bring to the turf.

All writers should bear the second quality.

I will admit that many genius writers do not have, necessarily, a theoretical formation given to them, but that theoretical formation they come to organically, in reading and picking up on patterns, as well as by deep intuition. To be a storyteller by nature is to possess a particular form of a gift, which then translates into learning to structure stories. Note that we exist in a culture built, in deep, historical ways, upon stories told by spoken word.

The great gift of consuming theories about craft is that these theories, when received from another, give you language and models for thinking through the different structural elements of plot, and so therefore, they ought to, in those who are thinking deeply, intentionally about their writing, elevate the work of their own intuition. Intuition, I’d say, only goes so far, or goes so far in a particular way, unless it’s working against an objective framework for quality.

(Experimental fiction and rule-breaking fiction only goes so far before it starts to tear apart the experience of the one who reads it; where good fiction should work on the heart and affect, should give life, should spark curiosity and wonder, sometimes the rule-breaking in fiction stifles imagination, gives rise to depression, and detracts from an engagement with reality. More could be said.)

I’ve been reading queries and manuscripts, and 90% of the time, the feedback comes down to something simple: You need to learn to write. To write as putting words to paper is not the same as creating magic with purpose and intention on paper, and the writer’s job is universally the latter, the difference being the genre with its set of rules, its audience, its pre-determined focus or purpose, and otherwise.

One of my top-notch secrets (except not, given that I break this in my rejections, revise and resubmit requests, and in my conferences) is to ask clients to do rigorous homework about craft as they learn to write, and write better, with the simple project being this one: Make every novel that you write, literally, better than the one that preceded it.

The space of experience underlying these two modes is its own, separate question, and as with others, I hope to reflect on this later–but there is no genius that can be made manifest without experience and practice, and there is no maturity in craft that can be made manifest without experience and practice.

Learn to not be afraid to experience, and to take the time to measure the quality of your experience against theoretical frameworks that will help you to apply your experience to the creation of a new experience in the space of the novel. See some incipient resources on these questions through the resources link above.

4 thoughts on “On the Obligation to Perfect One’s Craft

  1. Thanks for writing this post. I found it very interesting and it explores an important concept. I think this principle absolutely applies to writing, but would venture to say it applies to excellence in just about anything. As an engineer, I take great joy in my creativity. Most people don’t realize how creative you can be when programming. However, none of my creative efforts in engineering would have been worthwhile, if they were not supported by strong foundational scientific principles (Ohm’s Law comes to mind). I think the analogy holds up.

    You can be intuitive and empathetic with a horse, but if you don’t have the mechanics of riding down, you could find yourself in the dirt in a hurry. I think much wisdom is found in this post – whatever our endeavor and no matter how naturally gifted we are, we need to LEARN how to do it, so that we can “create magic with purpose and intention.”


    1. Nancy: yes, without hesitation! The general scaffolding at the top applies, I think, to the most part (as suggested)–that sheer genius spark, versus the theory needed to bring it into the world. I’d say that one thing that distinguishes writing in a particular way from many of the other forms here, even, to some extent, the visual arts (though I’d have to think about the nuance some more) is the degree to which, in a very expansive way, it channels/can channel the person’s interior life and experiences onto the page with a greater pre-requisite intellectual commitment to its presentation. There are different ways to discuss this question, but that’s one thing I’ve found about the written word that I don’t think applies the same way to the visual arts, even if they do the same work, of externalizing the interior, in a different form.


  2. I think you make an important and valuable distinction regarding your statement: “it (writing) channels/can channel the person’s interior life and experiences onto the page with a greater pre-requisite intellectual commitment to its presentation.” Writing is a privilege and a responsibility. Indeed – that is one of the treasures of the written word and why I am a writer: https://novelwrites.com/category/writing-life/

    Regarding the visual arts, I am not sure the intellectual commitment is a required component beyond learning the application of the medium selected, but I think it also depends on the medium. I think painting can be free flowing, yet I think sculpture would require at least somewhat of an intellectual presupposition going into its creation. I dabble in photography and learning the rules or understanding how to break them will ultimately help one get the best picture. Film is quite complex and I would liken it to writing, but then, it is birthed in the screenplay. Interesting, I have not thought of comparing the interior life expressed through my pen and the process it takes, to other mediums. Thanks for a stimulating conversation!


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