Challenge,  Fun Stuff,  On Writing

Learning In Writing

Not Like Other Skills…

This came from a fun conversation with other writers today at lunch.

When you learn something in fiction writing, you can’t just take that learning and apply it like learning how to fix a pipe or do something in Photoshop. I wish sometimes it worked that way, but alas it does not.

So when you learn something from a writing book, or another writer’s work, or a workshop like we teach, you must do your best to understand it while learning it, then go back to writing and forget what you learned.

That’s right, forget it.

When you learn something about a craft area of writing, your creative voice already knows how to do it because it has been reading and absorbing story for your entire life. But your critical voice suddenly understands that skill, so the critical voice gives the creative voice permission to use it.

That is how fiction writing is learned.

But the hard part is getting the critical voice out of the way. It wants to use that new skill and that will freeze you down faster than anything.

So assure the critical voice that in the coming writing, at some point, when that new skill is appropriate to use, it will be used, and get the critical voice to forget it. You will notice you are using the skill stories or books later, often when some reader points it out.

But if you let the critical voice try to write with it, the entire thing turns into a mess and often you stop writing until the critical voice lets go.

So constantly study writing fiction, study other writer’s work who are ahead of you, take classes and read books from people with experience. Learn details, then go back to writing and forget what you learned.

Your creative voice will not forget.


  • Cheryl

    THIS IS SO BRILLIANT. Thanks, yet again, Dean.
    I’ve been doing mega learning over the past few months and it has stalled me a bit on the writing end.
    Epiphany here as to what the problem is.

    • dwsmith

      Cheryl, yup, got to add in the practice with the learning. Keeping learning and forgetting and write a lot of words. Amazing how what you learned will just magically appear through your fingers if you don’t think about it.

  • Jim


    This makes sense. In doing your Great Challenge, I made a (feeble) attempt at studying Lester Dent’s short story formula to maybe, at a subconcious level, increae my prolificness (I think I just totally made that shit up.). I get how the 1500’s are broke down – to an extent, but consider myself more of a in the trenches type of writer/learner.

    Meaning, I searched Amazon for examples of Dent’s finished formula to study, but to no avail. I see his novels. No short stories.

    This post brings it home. It’s not about learning and applying exactly what you learn. It’s about learning, then forgetting, and then letting the information seep into the writing naturally.

    I see your 1,000,000 words and raise to1,000,001. 😉

  • Leah Cutter

    This describes perfectly how i learn writing techniques. Need that week or so after a class to “forget” it all, so instead of thinking about it, the new stuff just flows out my fingers.

  • Vincent Zandri

    Excellent advice. I’m 58 and I make a point of learning something new everyday. A newbie writer emailed me this morning. What writing apps should I use? I told her none. Learn from writing and reading other writers you enjoy. Later on she said she can’t plot by herself so she uses Plotter…I think that’s what it’s called. I suggested she stop immediately and learn to plot on her own and create her own unique voice. Once you’ve mastered that, if you wanna fuck around wit the AI tools go for it. But my guess is you won’t need them. My five cents.

    • dwsmith

      Yeah, the AI stuff like that just worries me for young writers. I might be doing a “get off my lawn” thing but not taking the time to learn the craft worries me. The craft from a computer is always just as good as the code and always stale.

  • Shannon

    I think my learning habits really still get in the way even after a few years of WMG workshop life. I get very excited about some new tool in the box, like power words, and want to dive in. Tough to wait for the mysterious subconscious to do what it does. Excellent post.

  • Brad D. Sibbersen

    Fortunately for me, this is how I’ve learned for my entire life. It doesn’t always work in other diciplines (less an automatic “I remember how to do this!” than “I learned how do do this once, I think? Let me look it up and refresh my memory…”), but it definitely works with writing. Crazy how the creative mind is always three steps ahead of the “practical” mind.

  • LM

    Actual question: when I settle in to learn a new skill, in this case, physical description, does it make sense to do practice writing exercises (often provided in the books I run through) before throwing it in the back brain? I haven’t done actual workshops, so my experience is mostly read until things start to click, mull on it, then throw it in the backbrain for when I need to use it, but I often feel remiss for not sitting down and doing exercises and am not sure if that’s slowing down this stuff turning out well in my writing or if it’s just something I need to be more patient about.

    • dwsmith

      Writing is the exercise. Won’t help you much at all to do exercises in some English book. Write a story and release and keep learning and repeat and that’s what you need to do. Don’t rewrite. Just write clean and release. It’s called practice, but as writers, we get to sell our practice sessions.

      • LM

        Thanks for answering my (potentially dumb) question! I’m actually relieved to hear it. I always appreciate these kinds of posts of yours.

  • Kate Pavelle

    Oh, this is good, Dean, thank you! This is how I got stuck on an urban fantasy I’m writing. It’s different from the other ones I’ve written.
    Critical Voice: “You have to figure out your Physics of Magic to make sure it’s consistent.”
    Creative Voice: “Oh, no! My Physics of Magic is inconsistent!” (Start thinking about it really hard.)
    Creative Voice: Writing…writing… a scene starts to happen…
    But all I do is hand-wave, nobody knows how the magic works in my world either. I need to communicate that to my Critical Voice, preferably over tea. Sigh.
    The sad part? I’ve moved over to a bunch of short stories in the meanwhile and I plain forgot where I was in the story. Now I need to read it again.