How to Study the Craft of Writing

Image of young, brown dog

Studying the craft of writing is different than studying math or science. In college (I studied engineering) my classmates and I furiously scribbled down what the prof was writing on the board. Usually it was sample equations, things we’d see again on an exam. Our notes were top to bottom, pretty straight forward.

I was going to insert an image here of a sample page of math notes, but I didn’t want to give anybody (including me!) horror flashbacks from school.

Equations vs. Techniques

My classmates and I would take our notes back to the dorm and practice the sample equations again and again with different input values. It was a case of learning to recognize a pattern, plugging the coordinating values into the equations, and “solving for x.”

But in the arts, including writing, you learn about certain techniques (foreshadowing, for example), and create something brand new using the techniques. Every story, every sentence in a story, is a brand new creation. There isn’t any solving for x.

And thus, my study notes for the craft of writing are different.

I took the Cornell method (link below) and adjusted it for self-study of the writing craft. Here’s yesterday’s session. See how it’s not top-to-bottom but divided into three areas?

Yesterday’s study session from Tim Waggoner’s Writing in the Dark was all about the emotional core of a story.

As I’m reading a book or article or even listening to a YT lecture, I jot down key ideas in the left hand column, and then (this is the important part) in the bigger area I immediately apply each concept to a work in progress. If you zoom in on my notes, you might see items about a character named Wang and how I could develop an emotional core for Wang’s story.

I also make little boxes with published examples. In these notes, the published examples are from Moby Dick.

When I’ve filled up the note-taking area down to the bottom section, I stop and get out my yellow pen to highlight the main points of what I just studied. Then (this is another important part), without looking back at the notes so I’m not just copying, I summarize what I’ve learned in my own words at the bottom of the page.

Studying, taking notes. What’s the big deal?

It’s a big deal to me because it’s working. Over the past few years (years because it takes a long time to develop fiction-writing skills), I’ve learned about stuff like extending metaphors, using a framing device, traditional plot structure, spiral plot structure, show don’t tell, intrusive vs helpful dialog tags, Gothic horror vs dark fantasy vs splatterpunk, peripheral narrators, etc. When I write, I have those things in my head, helping me along the way.

Yeah, I know, today’s feature image has nothing to do with studying the craft of writing. It’s a picture of my daughter’s new dog that is SO FREAKIN’ CUTE that I wanted to share!

Cornell note taking system:

For a more thorough article on taking notes to enhance learning, see Scott Young’s article:

59 thoughts on “How to Study the Craft of Writing

  1. As someone who studies creative writing and english literature I loved this post! And I agree about it being all about the techniques and concepts – and then there’s the difficult stage of needing to apply it to your own writing and craft as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. How interesting. Whether it is my dyslexic or not but I would become confused. I guess if I was writing the notes, I would do it in my own way. After reading 250 books on how to write, I just write now. I step into my character’s shoes and think and feel their thoughts which I put down in my stories.

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    1. I think if someone has dyslexia or any kind of struggle with reading/studying, then whatever works is the smart thing to do. Haha, yeah, I think after 250 books you’re good just to write now! Thanks for stopping by, Paula!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Okay your daughter’s dog is ADORABLE!!!!! OMG!!!! Also, I love that you shared how you study the structure of a story. AND what you studied in school! Engineering! That makes sense why you engineer such great techniques that lead to such amazing writing!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That dog! He’s SUCH a cutie.:-) I find it interesting that I had to figure out how to take notes in a different way in order to support a different way of learning (creative vs concrete subjects). Thanks for stopping by, Olga!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Very interesting post. Despite the vast quantity of resources focusing on writing technique, I think this may be the first I’ve seen advocating a specific format for note-taking. I’ll have to try it out and see how well it works for me.

    Strangely, I feel like note-taking is a very personal thing, and you might be able to learn a lot about people by studying their notes. I have to complement your incredibly neat handwriting! I can’t remember when I last saw such clean cursive. And did you use a ruler for those boxes?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The paper has faint graph lines that don’t show up in the image, so a ruler isn’t needed for the straight lines. I can just follow the graph.

      I hadn’t thought of it before, but you’re probably right. I think you can learn a lot about people by studying their notes.

      Thanks for the nice words about my handwriting. I went through a period when I could NOT read my own writing! What was the point of taking notes, of writing a grocery list, or sending a Christmas card if no one (including myself) could read my writing? So I bought one of those handwriting copy-books and worked on my penmanship. It took about two years, but eventually my writing got better.

      I’m glad you commented, Samuel!

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