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:

56 thoughts on “How to Study the Craft of Writing

  1. If it wasn’t for Cornell notes and jelly beans, I would have flunked out of college! (mostly, is was about the jelly beans, but that’s another story.) Your notes are amazing and how you go about processing info shows your math-precise mind. It is clear that you are owning the art, which is no small feat. Thank you for sharing this and especially for that picture – my “AW!” moment of the day. I will only add this: your flawless handwriting makes me question your character. Please tell me you spill coffee on the floor and scrub it around with the toe of your sock with a promise to clean it up later. Have a great week! ~Z

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hahaha, you made me laugh with the jelly bean comment! I’ve been working on my penmanship. It didn’t used to be that readable. If it makes you feel better, I eat a lot of chocolate while reading. Dark little crumbs fall between the pages and leave grease marks. Shhh, don’t tell any librarians. Thanks for commenting, Alexander De.:-)

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I have always taken notes, Priscilla. I studied accounting which is also formulas and calculations but also a lot of analysis to audit appropriately, for example. To this day, my Insights into IFRS, Companies Act and Listings Requirements are stuffed full of stickers with notes on them and pencil notes in the margin. When I read books, I often jot down particularly interesting quotes that resonate with me.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Wow, that system is brilliant! Whenever I’ve studied, the notes I’ve taken have been an illegible mess! Luckily, since I was studying journalism, I could blag a little and say it was all written in short-hand 😏 This post has inspired me though- next time I have the opportunity, I’ll be trying out your system Priscilla!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. That’s a lot of work and your handwriting is incredible. I’m not sure I’ve ever worked that hard. Keep making progress and we’ll be able to say we knew you (via your blog) when…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, I think the hard work is paying off because I sold another story last night, woohoo! I’ve been working on my penmanship, so I guess that’s paying off, too. And chocolate helps.:-) I’m glad you stopped by, Pat!


  5. Incredible, Priscilla, your mathematical approach.
    I’m more of an organic writer. I have all sort of notes in pen and pencil in my notebooks, post it too, bits of paper stuck inside. And lots of notes in my kindle.

    Then I go to write and I get to a scene that needs working on, then my brain brings out n image of the notes I need for it, from that I know where to search for my jotted notes… It’s a bit of a detour, but it works.

    Your handwriting is incredibly neat, and in cursive. 🙂
    AND, it’s THAT CUTIE a German Short-haired Pointer?? I had two in my life. They are AMAZING!

    Enjoy her!!! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m amazed how your brain works, that you can retrieve notes by picturing their place. That’s fascinating. My mind works opposite. I picture my pen writing the note, and then I can remember where I wrote it. Thanks for the kind words about my handwriting. I have been working on my penmanship, so I guess it’s paying off.

      Yes, that’s a German short-haired pointer. I agree: totally cute, fabulous energy, and affectionate.

      Thanks for commenting, Patricia!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Your daughter’s dog is adorable – that face! Your notes are so organized, Priscilla. I just finished a three day writing conference and my notes are all over the place – and probably illegible to most people. Sometimes even myself, lol.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True story: I was at work (coaching youth athletes, not writing), and I needed to check some notes I wrote a month or so prior, and I couldn’t read my own handwriting! So right then and there I decided to work on my penmanship. It’s gotten better.:-) Thanks for stopping by, Teri!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Your daughter’s dog is adorable, and I am grateful to have been spared the horrors of advanced math equations. (I still have nightmares, thank you very much.)

    Your notes are amazing. If you saw the way I take notes, you’d be horrified.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Ah yes, math nightmares. Remember the horrid dreams about the final coming up and in your dream you hadn’t been to class all semester?!

    I say whatever note taking system works for you is the right one! Have a fab week, Staci.:-)

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’ve always been a note taker, Priscilla. When I write things down, I retain them better.
    I love the way you make your notes. Mine are kind of all over the place, but they work for me. Most of my note taking these days relates to research when I’m working on a WIP.

    BTW, your daughter’s dog is a treasure. What a cutie!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. When I was in college I obtained a ream of “legal margin” note paper. The margin was just slightly left of center… and the paper of course was yellow. Cornell notes were unheard of at the time. The left side was bullet points, the right side filled with explanation, examples, and — in many cases — diagrams. I am extremely visual. Later I took this strange olio into the realm of meteorology, becoming a forecaster in the military without having any scientific background whatsoever.

    Mostly what I wanted to say, ‘though, is that I’m copying your lesson in my own way, and am going to apply it to a current story my wife and I are reading. Thank you for the tutorial.

    The puppy is way beyond cute!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey, I remember legal ruled paper! I haven’t seen it or even thought about it in ages. I guess you’d only find it on a law school campus. I bet ya anything the legal margin paper is where the Cornell method started. They just changed up the bottom part. Yeah, seriously cute doggy! Thanks for commenting.:-)

      Liked by 1 person

  11. What you said about writing and equations reminded me of that movie, “The Dead Poets Society.” That scene where the guy reads the first paragraph of a poetry book about how you can evaluate poetry almost like a mathematical or statistical problem, and the audience is like, “Whaaaat?”

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Equations (algebra.. not physics) and note taking were my fave.

    Very cool method … it would have helped some of my college friends for sure.

    Super cute dog 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I took quite a lot of physics in college. Some of those physics equations took up more than one page. Nope, not my favorite subject for sure! Thanks for stopping by, Morticia, and yes, he’s an adorable doggy.:-)


  13. I find this very interesting, especially that you are writing it out on paper. If I did that, I’d need a cryptographer to decipher my handwriting.

    Your method reminds me a bit of mine. Notes are extremely important. Using a software program equivalent to Microsoft Word, I have been depending on the “comments” feature to track my notes but recently, working on a novel with another author, I found a free program (an alternative to Scrivner) which I am liking a lot for its organizational features…. characters, notes, locations…

    This is a terrific post, Priscilla! Onward and upward!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Your daughter’s dog is adorable! I love your statement that in writing there’s no “solving for x.” Ain’t that the truth! I tend to apply a piece of learning or insight to my own WIP too. There’s no better way for me to learn than to use the skill and see how it works in a real piece of writing. 🙂 A fun post, Priscilla.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Diana. That dog is a high energy bundle of cutie-pie canine.:-) Yes, skill-to-application works, but it’s taking me a lot of practice.:-) I’m glad you stopped by. Hope you’re having a grand week!

      Liked by 2 people

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