Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Some Thoughts on the Craft of Writing

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 16, 2016

Back in high school, I thought I was pretty good at writing. I have one surviving example from that era. I used it as reference for an article I wrote for The Escapist several years ago on my first LARP experience (before that was even a term). I winced a lot when I read my old manuscript. It was painful, but it provided me with a lot of details that I had forgotten. When I was younger, I thought it was one of my best writing examples.

My younger self had no clue.

To be honest, from my perspective here in 2016, the article I wrote in 2008 kinda sucked, too.  I could do a much better job today, but I don’t think The Escapist wants to pay me to revise it.

I hope that means that I’m growing and improving as a writer. I thought I’d share some thoughts on how this growth happens.

It feels like there are a humongous number of rules / guidelines / techniques for writing a good story. Some are pretty iron-clad and universal (like spelling and grammar rules). Some are pretty loose guidelines and may vary by genre, audience, time, or even our personal process. So guess what? Nobody knows all of these rules, guidelines, and techniques. Any of them can be broken by an author who knows what he or she is doing, but not out of ignorance. Which… is tough, because starting out, ignorance is high, in spite of best efforts.

When a writers are first starting out, they probably don’t know most of these rules. Of the ones they think they know, they have forgotten many of them or don’t think about them while writing, and aren’t sure how to apply many of the rest. And then they allow themselves to violate some others because they think they are special snowflakes for whom exceptions can be made. Eventually this may be true, but beginning writers, in spite of sometimes considerable raw talent, often fall prey to Dunning-Kruger bias.

A new author can find themselves screwing up on accident a lot. They think, “Oh, man, I’d never do that!” and then later discover (or have it pointed out to them) that they managed to do exactly that.

With lots of reading (which trains the brain to recognize certain structures and rules), studying, practice, and maybe formal training, things get better. A lot more of concepts are not only learned, but internalized. That’s a big deal. A writer quits making so many newbie mistakes to begin with, and moves on to a plethora of other mistakes.

And eventually the writer who keeps at it, keeps learning, and keeps growing achieves a state of relative competence. I’m still just aspiring to that. They can crank out a first draft with fewer problems than inexperienced writers have in their final. Their editors may not have to squint so hard to see the gem inside the uncut stone.

Of course, good writing is more than just writing that just follows good structure, obeys guidelines and rules (where appropriate), and employs good technique. That’s all the craftsmanship – the science of writing, I guess. There’s still a huge creative / artistic element as well. I think this can also be trained, or at least learned, but a lot of it is innate as well. But until we get our skills up to that level of competency, it’s like driving a sports car along an unpaved, overgrown, rock-laden dirt road. There’s just nothing there but unused potential.

I think this pattern follows just about every creative endeavor, although for some (like game development) things are a lot less understood, and much more has to be learned the hard way. Since my improvements in writing have been pretty dramatic over the last couple of years, it has been easier for me to see.

I still make plenty of n00b mistakes in game development, too. Maybe one day I’ll be competent there, too.

Filed Under: Books, Writing - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

  • McTeddy said,

    I think one of my biggest issues is that I don’t read what most people do. I’ve been reading through the Great Chinese Classics and my best description of the writing is “It’s the best history book ever!”

    Heck, this is universal about me. My late night host of choice was “Charlie Rose”.

    I’m an oddball who genuinely enjoys things that are less “Prettied up”. The stuff normals want to read bores me to tears!

  • Tesh said,

    I found some of my old papers a few days back. I kept a few as examples of my writing at the time (high school and college). I can remember specifically padding things out to meet arbitrary page counts and appease the teachers’ tastes.

    It still bugs me to this day that I let myself do that, but it did get me through and get the paperwork with decent GPAs. I can see the seeds of interesting ideas in some of what I wrote, but were I to revisit the concepts, there would be changes. Many changes.

    The galling thing is that I can remember wanting to do things differently, but didn’t. It’s one of those itches that never quite goes away for me; the desire to just write instead of pander to a professor’s weird tastes for a grade. This was especially egregious in my AP English and college creative writing classes. There is just so much cruft. Tons of fluff, unnecessary descriptions, vague allusions and intentional obfuscation… it’s like I was writing for a hoity toity JRPG audience when all I wanted was to write Lord of the Rings with a scientific twist (which later found an outlet in steampunk themes).

    That’s part of why I wound up starting a blog. It’s why I scratch out ideas for novels I’d like to write. Those may never happen, but the itch is still there, to write what I want to write, without a grade or target audience looming to warp the approach.

    One can dream, I suppose.

  • Maklak said,

    > Lord of the Rings with a scientific twist
    “The last Lord of the Rings” by Kiryl Yeskov might be for you, but it is more “secret service” than scientific / logistics. I liket id, but it gets a lot of hate for some reason.

    @Rampant Coyote.
    I’m sure just having a blog is a great help in writing. You have to find 2-3 topisc per week and write about them in a non-boring way. I myslef improoved my writing skills tremendously by writing latters to a freind and it helped me more than the essays I had to write for school. Of course I’m not at a level when I can write a good story, but I can write a long and descriptive forum post or a useable user manual and that’s about the level of skill I need.

  • Dolnor said,

    I am one of those weirdos in life who would rather read a poorly written story in which I can identify and shares emotions to which I can relate…than a well-written story which is technically perfect but is rather dull and fails, in every respect, to connect with anyone.

    Give me a poorly written manuscript that shows the raw striving of the author who enjoys the act of sharing over a novel where the author’s name is larger than the title.


  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I am 100% in agreement there, although I’d rather have both. And a lot of those guidelines are about exactly that — helping make sure the story hits emotional resonance, connects with the audience, and above all ISN’T BORING. (I think I heard that as a cardinal rule at least three times at LTUE over the weekend).

    Of course, literary fiction is another beast entirely, but I don’t read as much of that.