New Writers Ask: Can’t Craft Be Learned?


I’ve had a number of writers I’ve mentored or critiqued ask me some form of this question. 

Sometimes it’s a plaintive wail expressing the writer’s earnest hope that they can overcome their ”issues.” 

Sometimes it’s a defiant roar: “Craft? Bah! Craft can be learned!” Subtext:  Despite misused words, grammatically broken sentences, incomprehensible paragraphs, and bewildering character interactions and motivations, the story is sound and a real editor will recognize its true brilliance.

Here’s the good news / bad news: Craft absolutely can be learned … but not by everyone. 

I’ve encountered people who have a “tin ear” for prose just like some have a tin ear for music. No amount of training can change this because the writer simply cannot hear when a note is ”true.”

The learning process begins when the writer immerses themselves in enough good prose to know what it sounds like, looks like, feels like and what it tastes like on the tongue.

Somerset Maugham put it this way:

“Words have weight, sound and appearance; it is only by considering these that you can write a sentence that is good to look at and good to listen to.” 

I have come to realize that are those for whom even years of immersion can’t train to tell the difference between a worthy vehicle for their ideas and a verbal train wreck. Writers who never learn to tell a good sentence from a bad one and for whom no amount of desire and hard work result in craft. So, if you’re able to learn craft, give yourself a big pat on the back, because it’s not something that everyone can do. It’s a real accomplishment.

I once did a group workshop with an aspiring writer who had worked over the same novel year after year, getting critiques from a host of professional writers. By the time I met her, the novel was in its fourth or fifth version and had not improved. 

When she asked how she could learn to write better, I said, “Read Ray Bradbury and Tim Powers and other writers of that caliber and try to identify what makes their prose sing.” 

She responded, literally in tears, “I do read them, and their prose sounds just like mine. I can’t tell the difference between what they write and what I write.” 

I didn’t know what to say. Neither did any of the other published authors in the workshop. The key to this writer’s improving seemed to be something she was unable to do: hear her own false notes and uneven rhythms. 

Now, this writer’s prose wasn’t any worse than other writers I’ve worked with, who’ve gone on to be published. The only difference was that when I told those writers: “This sentence is broken in these ways…” they understood. All I got from this poor woman was a blank stare, even after I showed her the ways in which a sentence (or paragraph or dialogue) was broken.

This tone deafness is at its worst when combined with a conviction on the would-be writer’s part that they are a diamond in the rough and that a professional editor will recognize the sheer brilliance of their ideas through any amount of poor craft. This can cause a writer to sabotage their own potential career by submitting broken work to editors or agents. It can also cause them to make up excuses as to why the work is repeatedly rejected; it was the editor, the political climate, the challenging nature of the ideas. It could not possibly have been their lack of ability to frame those ideas.

My best advice when working with mentors, editors, writers’ workshops, and the like: Don’t Be That Writer. 

Being able to humbly accept critique, to channel frustration and even anger back into learning craft, are some of the most important personal skills a writer (or anyone else) can learn. 

And please, when you meet with bad news about your work—and you will, at some point and in some way—don’t shoot the messenger.



New Writers Ask: Can’t Craft Be Learned? — 5 Comments

  1. Oh, Maya, this is so familiar from my work with students and editing clients! I do believe that some writers really are “tone deaf,” and that’s an unfortunate reality. But others can learn, if they admit they need to improve. It’s hard for people to discern what are good models in these times of poorly-crafted, poorly-edited writing inundating us, but a quick read through the classic “Elements of Style” can be enlightening. It’s a slim volume and surprisingly entertaining.

  2. The ones who frustrate me aren’t the tone-deaf ones; it’s the writers who seem to genuinely believe it’s the editor’s job to fix “small things” like their prose. They don’t get that the story and the words used to tell it are inextricably linked . . . nor that editors don’t have the time and energy to waste on doing a ground-up fix of broken prose when there are equally good narratives out there that don’t require that work.

    Teacher-me sees the tone-deaf ones as a challenge — is there a tactic by which they could be led to see the difference? The ones who think someone else should do that job for them, I just want to smack.

    • Marie: Aside from the ones who turn away help with both hands and feet, there are the ones who are visually oriented. That needs an entirely different approach; visually oriented writers are those who turn out a vivid story at a rippling clip, perhaps in lamentable prose, but the story is so absorbing the uncritical reader doesn’t notice the prose. Think Dan Brown.