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: https://pdf.wondershare.com/mobile-app/cornell-note-taking-system.html

For a more thorough article on taking notes to enhance learning, see Scott Young’s article: https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/?ck_subscriber_id=609926286

56 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.

    Liked by 1 person

    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

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