Today, I am honored to have my friend Ranee Boyd Tomlin share her thoughts about learning and writing here. Ranee is my nonfiction editor, and she’s stellar at her job. Her wisdom here also shows she’s stellar at the writing life, too. Enjoy.
When I first got into the writing business, I was puzzled by the number of people who think writing is something anyone can do. But I eventually realized that because many of us learned to write in first grade, it’s natural to assume that pounding out those magic words means just sitting down and doing something we’ve been familiar with for years. In that sense, writing is something anyone can do.
Until we actually try to write a short story, an article, a book, or an essay that says what we want to say in a way that others want to read.
The challenge can take a while to materialize. At first, we often enjoy the process and our own words. It may not seem that hard to fill pages we can easily polish later. Supportive encouragement from any source, a little self-editing, a reader who looks at our writing and loves it (with maybe just a couple of suggestions for tiny tweaks), some quick information on publishing, and there it is: proof that of course we know how to write. Who doesn’t?
The learning journey has just started.
I’ve been throwing down words and pleasing teachers most of my life (right through a PhD in adult learning); and in a variety of genres, throughout many years, I’ve written a lot of stuff that a bunch of people have read. And yet, every time I face the page or take a writing class or delve into a how-to resource or receive feedback from an editor or another published writer, I realize how little I know.
To the question of who doesn’t know how to write, I willingly answer: me.
This admission is the single best step I’ve taken for my writing progress.
It’s not about self-criticism.
In my experience, we’re hardest on ourselves when we don’t meet our self-expectations. If I believe I already know how to do something and discover that knowledgeable professionals and an objective audience don’t agree, I’m disappointed with myself.
But when I choose a learner’s mind, I can accept rejection and correction—or even being ignored—as a sign that I don’t yet know a good way to approach the writing task I’ve tried, so I need to figure out what I don’t know, decide where to learn it, and practice until it starts to seem familiar.
Defensiveness is the enemy of learning.
Writing for publication has many more moving parts than we ever learn in school. To position ourselves to understand the complexities of writing for an audience, we must embrace an important truth: we don’t know what we don’t know.
Our egos aren’t always receptive to that idea. The “I’ve been writing just fine my entire life” voice frequently lurks quietly until something or someone suggests a knowledge gap. Then the whining and resistance start. “Why should I do anything differently than the way I’ve always done it? I don’t need to change; the world should just acknowledge I already know everything about writing that’s important.”
What types of things might we not know that we don’t know?
The internet abounds with teachers. An oft-quoted saying (of debated origin) claims, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Maybe so, but the burgeoning appearance of online teachers can feel bewildering. And just as tricky is how the student can be ready if they don’t know they need to learn something.
Connecting and lurking virtually can help with both challenges. We need to invest time in reading online blogs and articles, and in joining and participating in online writing groups. And there we must pay attention to questions others ask, to advice we see often, and to resources repeatedly mentioned. When issues and gurus come up again and again, in different online venues—in other words, when we see a pattern of repetition—that’s when we can accept: this is something we need to understand, and here is a resource we can trust.
Using that approach, every day I gain a better understanding of what I don’t know and who I want as my guide. I also face the absolute dependability of change—because much of what I don’t know is something I thought I knew, but now it’s all different.
In fact, one of the best ways of convincing ourselves to have a learner’s attitude is to recognize how quickly the writing business evolves. Even the experts scramble to keep up. In addition to being a writing student, I’m also a professional copyeditor who is constantly learning. The first thing my formal copyediting training taught me was how much more there is to grammar than I ever realized, how much more than grammar there is to copyediting, and how much of language and style is a moving target.
Copyediting humbles me daily. So does writing. And that’s the way I want to stay: open and receptive.
To avoid overwhelm and procrastination, learn by doing.
One of the worst mistakes we can make as writers, though, is to become so overwhelmed by all there is to learn that we don’t try.
A companion error is thinking we need to learn everything before we start.
Remember what we’ve all experienced: humans learn best by doing. Yes, we need guidance and feedback; and courses, books, blogs, podcasts, writing groups, and editors are important to the learning process.
But the only way through the journey is to move forward, making corrections along the way. When we realize we don’t know something, that’s the time to seek knowledge and practice. Then, fortified, we can take the next step and once more go as far as possible, until a roadblock points us to new learning.
It’s a stop-and-start, reiterative, and lifelong pathway of growth, this writing life. Embrace the not knowing, and become ever stronger.
Is there a specific part of writing you suspect you don’t know? We’d love to hear how you plan to learn.
Ranee Boyd Tomlin is a writer and editor. You can find her at https://www.wordsforstories.com/.