Academic skills, those acquired through study, have a limited scope. I’m not saying that it can’t be very broad, but it is undeniable that some aspects are not covered in it.
If you want to learn how to swim it will be positive (at least it will not hurt) to receive basic explanations from a teacher, even read something about it to get used to it and to know what it is. But in order to be able to swim there is no substitute for entering the pool (river, sea, lake …) In fact, jumping into the water without explanation is one of the most used methods. And it is the fastest.
But … will I panic and begin to shake uncontrollably, making things worse? Maybe, but once the early stages are overcome, if your intention is to learn, you begin to understand the basics to stay afloat. The style and grace will come with practice.
With writing (and almost with anything) preparation only takes us to the edge of the pool with vague notions about what to do next. The rest can only be learned inside the water.
The feeling that you will be much better if you delay the time of actually “doing things” and stay in the studying stage, reading what the experts say, analyzing various points of view and collecting data, often has more to do with fear than a well-planned strategy.
Ultimately, it is useless to think about what might happen instead of doing it.
This doesn’t mean that prior preparation is meaningless, but perhaps practice is much more beneficial than theory. The point is that knowledge is useful when applied, but it doesn’t make much sense as pure knowledge. The optimum is to combine theory and practice.
A full understanding of most of the things that will help you in your growth as a writer can only be accessed through personal experience. We must find it out for ourselves. That doesn’t mean that other people’s experiences can’t be enlightening but, by their nature, the ideas of others never give us the complete picture.
It is very easy to make something seem essential only by providing some evidence to support the theory. A lot of books on the art of writing do that, although perhaps not always intentionally.
If I say that I have studied last year’s bestselling books and found that they all share X ingredient and that you must include this X ingredient if you want your novel to succeed, it will seem a reasonable suggestion, especially if I can support what I say with several texts taken out of Best Sellers.
To give an example, let’s say I have discovered that all these successful books have an introduction, middle and end (not a very revolutionary affirmation).
Well, is there any book that does not follow this structure? Yes, a couple. Some will always achieve the objective by breaking the rules. But the vast majority comply with these rules and yours should too.
Okay, you might think, maybe it makes sense.
But there are other questions you should ask: How many books follow this structure and haven’t succeed? Are there any really bad books that have the X ingredient?
I think we all know the answer, but don’t think about it so much. Success is more visible than failure, which is lost in the dark (if they are published).
Thus, while it is interesting to note that the five most successful novels have a trigger event on page 25, you should be aware that many other novels have a trigger event on page 25 and have failed to reach the bookstores.
Which leads us to think: How useful is it to know this? Discovering things in common does not guarantee to find that differentiator element that will make my novel better than the others.
It doesn’t mean that it is not worth knowing it. A doctor should know which side of the syringe to point at the patient, but they won’t know how to inject something with no pain by only knowing the theory. You should stick several needles in order to acquire that skill. And it will hurt at first and patients will scream. This is how you will improve your technique.
So, is all the academic knowledge beyond the basics not worth it?
The truth is the opposite. It helps a lot to learn every possible thing about the art of writing. It’s not like it is a shortcut to suddenly become a kung Fu master like Neo in The Matrix, this doesn’t work that way (unfortunately). Part of that knowledge does not even make sense to you until you start applying it.
But among all this information that’s out there, there will be a quote, an idea which will produce the “click” in your head, evolving the way you think. This “revelation” will be different for each person and nobody knows exactly what they should hear in order to trigger that kind of mental growth, so you should get all the information, all the knowledge and dive in it to find your own revelation.
I have read many (many) books on the art of writing. Most of them were obvious and didn’t cause a big impression. But every now and then a teaching makes its way up to my head. For me, discovering that the scenes could show instead of just tell, and thus reveal the nature of the character, changed my way of writing. This little tip (given so many times in so many workshops) made me look for ways to show things in my scenes to see if it worked.