Why No Writer Knows What He’s Doing

Learn to Embrace Your Writing Ignorance

Why No Writer Knows What He’s DoingI’ve been telling stories since I was two years old. I’ve been writing stories since I was twelve. I have four published novels (and two more scheduled) to my name. I know enough about the craft to write this blog, numerous guest posts, a podcast, and eight writing how-to books and counting. Sounds like I’ve really got a handle on this writing business, doesn’t it?

The truth, however, is a little more fluid than that. The truth is none of us completely understands what we’re doing. I could have written an opening paragraph about the talents and accomplishments of such as Ernest Hemingway, and the revelation at the end would still hark back to his own admission:

We are all apprentices in a craft where no one becomes a master.

Tales From the ScriptScreenwriter William Goldman wrote in the essay anthology Tales from the Script:

[N]obody knows anything. If we knew what we were doing, every movie would be wonderful.

Feel Like You Don’t Know Enough About Writing? You’re Not Alone

At first glance, that may seem pretty self-defeating. If we’re never going to conquer the art of writing, what’s the point? (I can hear all the perfectionists out there throwing in the towel already.)

But if we flip the coin on its head, and look at the other side, we discover some mighty interesting benefits to this seeming defeatism, including the marvelous commiserative comfort of knowing that even the likes of Hemingway and Goldman struggled with getting stories to work.

Their characters didn’t always pop, their dialogue sometimes fell flat, their endings sometimes bombed—and they didn’t know how to fix things. They stared at the cursor (or whatever authors stared at before the advent of Scrivener) in frustration. They probably procrastinated. They undoubtedly experienced those moments of terror when they looked at the blank page.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? And yet these writers, and many more just like them, have produced lasting literature and film. Hemingway won the Pulitzer and the Nobel; Goldman won two Oscars.

“Not Knowing” Is Just an Opportunity for “More Learning”

Because of its inherent connection to humanity’s emotional and subconscious core, art can be an evolving, shifting, rather nebulous creation that pours out of us in ways we can’t always control.

Every book you write is a new adventure. Perhaps you master each story as you write it, but that doesn’t prepare you for the next story you write. You must learn afresh how to write each story.

You study the craft in order to create the most effective vessel possible for your art, but effective vessels, in themselves, don’t constitute great art. It’s that bit of uncontrollable magic that boils up from someplace you didn’t even know you had that makes all the difference.

None of us can completely control that, no matter how long we’ve been writing, how many books we’ve published, or how much we’ve studied the craft.

That’s the joy of fiction: that this inexplicable magic can somehow pour from your unworthy fingertips and create something that will touch the lives of others and be remembered beyond your own lifetime. Although your continuing conscious understanding of the craft will only help you build better stories as you grow, it’s important to realize that somehow you’re sometimes able to create some incredibly good things, even while still walking this never-ending path of learning.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What are you in the process of learning about writing right now? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Hi K.M. Great post, aptly stated. I’ve always thought that any greatness or creativity is channeled. We write, as you say, often not knowing where it comes from. It’s not for us to question, but rather to go with the flow of it. I really like how you refer to the magic of writing because that is often what it feels like: pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Writers are indeed performers–of the written word. We don’t always know our lines, how it will unfold or how it will be received. We just know that we need to tell the stories that usually tell themselves.

  2. Not being able to perfect my writing is one of the reasons why I do it. It’s an endless challenge to try for that perfect mark, to try for that new genre or skill. I love it.

    CD

  3. Not knowing how things will end is one of the best reason to write; being able to be okay with not knowing what will happen is much harder! Even when I feel like everything I ever write will be awful, there’s no way I can NOT write. 🙂

  4. @Kelly: I like the comparison of writers to performers. Even though we’re not performing “live,” we’re still ad-lobbing and throwing our hearts out there when we’re writing the first draft. In many ways, I would think it’s similar to how actors and musicians might feel.

    @Chelsea: Hear, hear! I couldn’t agree more. Imperfection is the challenge that makes it all exciting.

    @rebel: That’s the sign of a true writer, I think. I always tell people, “If you can *not* write, then don’t.” But if writing calls to your soul, welcome to the adventure!

  5. This title cracked me up. 😀

    A part of me had hoped that I’d eventually get the hang of writing and future novels wouldn’t be so frustrating. But as you said, all the adventure would be gone.

    It wouldn’t be fun anymore and I would no longer want to write. It would become mundane—like my day job, where day in and day out it’s the same thing. There’s nothing to challenge me, and I just perform my duties like a robot. Boring, boring, boring.

    In writing, learning something new each time, or relearning each time not only helps me be a better writer, but it keeps the writing spirit alive.

    Great post!

  6. In some ways, writing does get easier the more you do it. But in other ways, each book actually seems to become more difficult. It’s a new learning experience every time. I’ve stopped expecting that I’ll know how it’ll work out!

  7. I really appreciate this post. The more I learn, the harder it is to turn out a good book. Like you said to Lorna, the writing part gets easier, but the actual writing isn’t all that goes into a great novel. The part that’s got me gridlocked with Cat Lady is timing. At what point do you start revealing the secrets?

    I’m still trying to figure it out (and I actually did an outline this time!)

  8. That’s exactly it: each new story has new lessons to teach us. Sometimes those lessons are lessons without names, more just unnameable, general feelings, things we not even realize we’ve gained. But, often, I can look back at each story and tell you exactly what important writing principle I learned while writing it.

  9. I have to say I do find it encouraging to know that no one knows it all. I’ve been reading a LOT of books on writing and there are so many differences of opinions. I realised I have to make up my own mind. I love it 🙂
    Great post.

  10. Everyone does it their own way. But I find it helpful to read about even the writing processes that I know won’t work for me. There’s always something I can learn from how other authors do it.

  11. As we grow as writers, we take more risks. A good writer should always be stretching their comfort zone – but they will always be risking failure too. A provocative, honest and brave post. I’m tweeting…

  12. The history of literature bears out that the best stories are the brave ones. If we’re not prepared to leave our guts on the page, we had better not even bother.

  13. it is very comforting to hear such confessions

    every story is a new journey, completely detached from the previous. experience helps grow as a writer, but we still wind up at a loss in the midst of certain projects. i’ve finished an earlier story within twelve days, while the next one took over six months.
    i’ve been standing at a block on the current one for about a month and a half now.
    in spite of writer’s blocks -however frequent- and in spite of criticism -constructive or not- my passion burns on, and i know i cannot NOT write, either.

    two quotes came to my mind when i read this post:

    “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” -E. L. Doctorow

    “There is absolutely no point in sitting down to write a book unless you feel that you must write the book, or else go mad, or die.” -Robert Davies

  14. @glasses, love the quotes.

  15. @glasses: I think the reason certain projects put us at a loss is because the stories are always bigger than ourselves, and, as a result, we’re always struggling to grow big enough to tell them properly. Thank you for sharing the quotes!

  16. I like this. No one is a master. We are all fellow students.

    Yes, it’s an adventure. I’m only beginning to realize it.

  17. The very fact that we can’t master it is what makes it so interesting me. If I could master it, I’m sure I’d have to move on to newer, more exciting horizons.

  18. I know…isn’t it like that sometimes? But it’s fun when you discover things!

  19. The day I stop learning is the day I hope I die!

  20. Sometimes it takes the same skills to be good at what you do and to know that you’re good at it, so conversely you can be crap at writing and have no idea that you are crap

  21. Your argument is to normalize inferior craft. Forster knew what he was doing and your opinion is worthless if you think he didn’t. You can’t write like him, so you seek to drag down the discipline to a mass-amateurization level. You use universalize anecdotes to prop up the specious argument and you use the ad vericundium of the masters (otherwise, why cite ‘credible voices.’ If you treat them as masters, they are) to prop up your specious argument. Goldman is a hack. If you are trying to complete an act of hackery, yes, there is no such thing as mastery in that. But I couldn’t even make it through these few paragraphs without averting my eyes several times & taking a deep breath & reminding myself that your expository argument is undercut by its form and presuppositions.

    You know what it takes to be a great writer? Presenting CLEAR, COHERENT THOUGHTS IN A FORMAT THAT DOESN’T UNDERCUT ITSELF!

    I am so sick of fake-ass writers mistaking a career for craft. So go on and redefine the craft until you suddenly ‘qualify’ as a writer. You’re just an it that stinks excuse.

  22. Yeah, but writing w/o goals in mind leads to purposeless drivel. Or gives a general staleness to the piece of writing making it uninteresting.

  23. @Khakjaan: Although I respect your opinion, I think you missed the point of the post. In no way am I encouraging writers to neglect the craft or settle for inferiority. In fact, I adamantly and passionately object to such ideas, both in my own practice of the craft and in other posts on this site. What I am pointing out is that none of us will ever reach a point of perfect expertise. One would hope we’re all constantly learning, growing, and improving. Discouragement and inferiority are things that many writers – even masters – struggle with. It’s my wish to encourage them, and you, that we all have an exponential opportunity for perfecting our work.

    @Lorrie: I agree. Striving for perfection is what allows all of us to keep growing.

  24. So true. Excellent post (as always)!

  25. Thanks for reading, Nina!

  26. I’ve been editing a novel for a fellow writer who recently became discouraged by my edits. I encouraged him with words similar to these. I’ve been writing for fifteen years now and keep realizing that writing is a journey. Some of us are further along than others and can help those behind us, but there’s always someone else ahead of us and more to learn. 🙂

  27. Writers who are in it for the long haul soon figure out that a manuscript sent out for critique that *doesn’t* return with all sorts of red markings is a disappointment. Constructive criticism is one of the greatest helps to any of us.

  28. This post made me feel much, much better. It’s all a process, this writing thing. And we’re all doomed to sometimes stumble around in the dark while we’re doing it. But the great thing about stumbling around in the dark is that you never know what you might bump into.

  29. Great analogy! Yes, there’s lots of interesting things lurking in the murky depth of our creative brains. And there’s usually a light at the end of the tunnel too.

  30. Good post. I was reminded of an observation by Raymond chandler, here no doubt loosely paraphrased, to the effect that a writer can spend his whole career learning his craft until at the end he is a writer who knows all the tricks but has nothing left to say.
    That may be at slight variance to your premise, though perhaps not. If a writer has mastered technique but can find no practical use for it, it can’t be said that he or she has mastered the craft.

  31. I’m big on craft – as I’m sure you’ve realized by now. But I’m even bigger on art. Art without craft is a passionate mess. But craft without art is just a tidy void.

  32. “Why no writer knows what ‘HE’S’ doing”? Are all writers men?

  33. Maybe just the ones who don’t know what they’re doing? 😉

  34. Katie,
    Great post again! I especially liked the encouragement that writing is an adventure right at our fingertips.

  35. Katie,
    Great post again! I especially liked the encouragement that writing is an adventure right at our fingertips.

  36. Katie,
    Great post again! I especially liked the encouragement that writing is an adventure right at our fingertips.

  37. I think it’s that sense of untapped adventure that beckons (and hooks) most of us. It’s addicting to be sure!

  38. Someone told me this week “It’s not the destination but the journey that counts”. If we did become Masters, then where would be journey of learning? Good post!

  39. That’s one of my favorite sayings. Once you get to the destination, it’s over. The journey is where we find all the adventure and all the memories we’ll cherish for the rest of our lives.

  40. Great post, dear!

    I don´t know who this quote belongs to, but I love it: “A blank page is the way God shows us how it feels to be God”.

    Hugs,

    M.

  41. I hadn’t heard that one before. I have a feeling God’s a little less frightened by His blank page than I am by mine!

  42. What a cool post and it’s made me feel so much better. Even though I’m well into my third book, I still have moments where I honestly question authoring my two previous books. Parts of the writing process still feels so new I can’t quite believe I’ve been through the same process twice before.

  43. I’m just now starting my ninth book – and I feel exactly the same way! Every book is its own adventure, with its own lessons to learn. Sometimes the process seems totally different with each book. But the challenge is what it’s all about!

  44. Just makes me more comfortable. Since I am good at being uncertain 😉

  45. Tony Findora says

    This really helps to hear, especially as I I get ot points whether it’s really worth it or not. Thank you for this!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think all writers go through those periods of wondering whether writing is worth it–especially in the beginning. Of course the answer to that question is different for all of us. But if you continue to stick with it, I think you’ll definitely find that it *is* worth it. 🙂

  46. Katie,
    As an infant in the writing of fiction, this was a great comfort. Actually, one of the reasons I stick with it is because I’m constantly learning, which, apparently, is something I’m wired for. So, learning to write a novel is a lot less expensive than chasing a doctorate degree! 😀
    AND – more fun!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Honestly, learning is probably even more fun than writing. The day I know it all is probably the day I quit. 😉

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