Long-form writing is a craft and you need a mini-apprenticeship

Recently, I’ve been talking about writing and in particular, writing longer-form content.

And (I know I’m repeating myself), I’ve said how important it is to have some kind of system for writing.

In my experience, when you find and use a good system for writing… a system that delivers results time and time again, you should expect people to attack and criticise it.  

And you’ll find that the strongest criticisms can often come from the “experts”.

Don’t be surprised by this. 

A lot of experienced writers can’t really explain what it is they do when they write long-form content.

In fact, many people who are skilled at a craft struggle to articulate what it is that they do when they do what they do. 

This is the problem of tacit knowledge and skills acquired implicitly and usually over a long period of time.

What I’m trying to do here is the opposite.

In a nutshell, I can speed up the process for you by explicitly teaching you concrete steps and processes and giving you the scaffolding that you need.

But a system like this sounds very mechanical to the so-called experts.

These writing snobs like to criticize explicit approaches and systems as a paint-by­-numbers approach to longer-form writing. 

This criticism is quite true. 

But screw them. 

My answer to them, and yours should be the same, is as follows: 

  • “Who cares!” 

Or feel free to use stronger language. 

And the reason for all this is because sometimes you just need a way to get started and a way to grind out all the words you need. 

Furthermore, probably, you’re not interested in becoming the Michaelangelo of long-form essay writing. 

Well, you might be, I don’t know.

But whether you are or you aren’t, we all just need to get the writing done so that we can achieve our goals and carry on with life, right? 

That’s why it’s important that you have a system. 

But let’s get back to the problem with writing snobs and having a paint-by-numbers approach. 

Here’s the thing: 

  • People who are writing snobs often fall into one of two categories. 

If they can actually write well:

  1. They don’t really know how to describe in plain English what they do when they write a good long-form copy; or
  2. They want to keep their process a secret so they can hold it over you for whatever reason. 

We can deal with Category 2 snobs first. 

They might think that they’re going to get better grades, increased sales, more money, or possess a better ability to influence others, but this is usually a false perception

I’ve worked and studied with people like this. I have no sympathy for them.

All you need to remember is that now the game is up. Once you have a system, my system, any good system, you have the secret sauce. 

I do have some sympathy with the crowd that falls into the first category. They’re not really snobs… but they do confuse people.

And, as a teacher, this pisses me off.

Because of the damage they do.

Now, I know that when you’re an expert at something, it’s often hard, verging on impossible, to teach your skills to others. 

This is the problem with tacit knowledge. I’ve explored this in my book on Craftsmanship.  

With these folks, something that they don’t realize, or can’t articulate, is this:

  • They usually work through exactly the same steps as the ones you’re about to follow. 

The fact that they’re good writers is no guarantee that they understand what is happening when they write.

In fact, when it comes to learning new skills in general, you’re often better off asking someone like you who is also in the process of learning but is perhaps one or two steps ahead of where you’re at.

This isn’t true in every case, but this has often been true in my experience.

Also, I actually call my method a “paint-by-numbers’ system when I talk to people about it.

If this makes you feel bad then either get over it or stop reading and go back to whatever you were doing before.

Right… If you’re still reading, allow me to dig myself a deeper hole.

The reason I use the paint-by-numbers metaphor is that people grasp the idea immediately.

In other words, you know that if you follow the instructions you’ll get the result.

And this is what happens – although the metaphor is not really accurate.

Also, sometimes, I tell people that learning a system for writing is like having a set of trainer wheels for your bike. 

Once you get good at riding the bike – or writ­ing longer-form content, in this case, – you can throw the trainer wheels away.

Again, this helps people grasp the idea that they can put the support systems in place that they need for success.

And if they just get on with it, they’ll achieve the objective.

Again, this is what happens, but it’s still a terrible metaphor.

As a parent, I know this from experience. 

I bought training wheels for my daughter when she was learning to ride. 

The result was a false sense of confidence and she still had to learn balance when we took the trainer wheels off.

The metaphor I like most at the moment is more nuanced, which means people are less likely to really understand it.

But I’m gonna share it with you anyway.

Here it is:

  • Long-form writing is a craft and you need a mini-apprenticeship. 

When are you going to get serious and get started?

Author: Graeme Smith

Education, technology, design. Also making cool stuff...

2 thoughts

  1. Fab stuff Graeme! This is an interesting way of looking at it.
    Very true that system is key to approaching art/craft. Having no system is like having a bucket of paint and no brush.

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