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February 25, 2016

Writing Skills: Beginner vs. Advanced

Students in a lecture hall with text: Can You Spot the Beginner?

I’ve spoken many times about our learning curve as writers. Not only can it seem endless—with all the different skills we need to learn—but we can also be skilled at one aspect and unskilled in another aspect.

Just when we start thinking we’re getting pretty good at this writing thing, we might come across another element of writing where we’re a complete newbie. That’s not anything for us to be embarrassed about—that’s just part of writing life. *smile*

Even multi-published authors contact me to let me know that they learned something new from my blog, workshops, or beat sheets. The learning doesn’t stop for any of us.

I’m always looking out for new information and researching concepts I hadn’t heard of before. It wasn’t that long ago that I (finally) learned about coordinate versus cumulative adjectives. Yep, something I probably should have learned back in school, and I hadn’t had a clue. *grin*

So at what point can we stop thinking of ourselves as beginning writers? When will we be “qualified” for the advanced stuff?

The Many Entrances to the Writing World

We all come to writing with different backgrounds and experiences. So what we know—or what we need to learn—is unique.

Maybe we started writing when we were young, so we’ve already fully developed our voice but lack the knowledge of how to deeply portray three-dimensional characters. Or maybe we have natural storytelling skills but struggle with building emotional arcs behind the plot.

Whatever our background, we can still become successful writers. As I shared before about Christie Craig, a New York Times bestselling author:

“Christie is a dyslexic high-school dropout. She didn’t have writing skills when she started. But she could tell stories, and that’s what really matters. Everything else can be learned.

By studying, we can change our fate. How cool is that?”

I came in to writing with a somewhat instinctive understanding of story structure and beats, but I was obviously lacking in the grammar department (and a lot of other departments). *smile* Those different “entry level” skills mean that it’s hard to define what beginner means.

What Does “Beginner” or “Advanced” Mean Anyway?

Ever wonder why certain skills are labeled as beginner skills while others are labeled advanced skills? I’ve had people ask me to label my posts or the links I share on Twitter as “for beginners” or “advanced tip.”

Occasionally, I’ve included those labels on my tweeted links to others’ posts, but I don’t usually use those labels here on my blog. Why?

Because who’s to say whether information is beginner or advanced?

As I mentioned above, I should have learned about that grammar rule back in school (along with every other grammar rule I never learned). Yet for me, I didn’t learn it until after I started working with professional editors.

What’s basic knowledge for us might be completely unknown to someone else. So if we label a skill as “for beginners,” others might skip over it, assuming the information to be about things they already know.

What “Advanced” Should Mean

For all those reasons above, I don’t usually label my posts here as “for beginners” or “advanced.” One of the exceptions is my Lost Your Pants? workshop, which I specify is more advanced…because it builds on other knowledge about arcs, beats, and beat sheets.

And that’s what “advanced” should mean: Advanced skills are those that require a fair amount of previous knowledge for us to even understand them—much less apply them.

In other words, advanced is when other skills are a prerequisite to learning. But not everyone approaches the labels the same way, so we end up with something labeled advanced just because they didn’t learn it until later in their learning curve.

The Problem with Mislabeling

Once we reach a certain point in our learning curve, it is difficult to find new topics. I no longer seek out writing conferences with the primary purpose of attending workshops, as too many are a waste of my time.

I’ve lost count of how many dozens of blog posts I’ve read along the lines of “12 Advanced Editing Tips!” When I click, those articles are typically full of such no-prerequisite-knowledge-required gems as “Delete filler words like just, only, and very.”

No… Just because editing happens after drafting in our writing journey does not make it “advanced” compared to drafting skills. Whether a skill is applied later in the process or learned later on our learning curve, later doesn’t mean advanced.

I’d rather not label something at all than make the mistake of mislabeling it. As we’ve already covered, when we mislabel something as beginner, we might discourage those who need the information from exploring the idea.

The problem can get even worse if we mislabel something as advanced when it’s really for beginners—and charge for it, like with a class or workshop.

Don’t Assume Advanced Equals New Information

So labels like beginner or advanced don’t necessarily mean much. In addition to potentially discouraging writers who could need the information from sticking around, they have no set definition and can mislead in several ways. With all that, I hope my reluctance to use those labels makes a bit more sense. *smile*

Yet we want to avoid spending time or money on classes, workshops, how-to books, etc. that won’t teach us anything new. If we can’t rely on labels, how can we tell what will be helpful to us?

Regardless of any labeling, before we spend our money, we should look for the details of what a workshop, educational program, or book claims we’ll learn:

  • Are their claims filled with vague spam-like promises?
  • Or is the list specific enough for us to tell whether the information will actually be new—to us?

As I’ve mentioned before, we can’t buy the secret to success, so we also want to watch out for pitches based on fear or “If You’re Serious, You Need to…” threats. There’s nothing wrong with spending money to improve our writing career, but we just want to make sure that we’re spending that money on a worthy expenditure.

That means we might want to learn to ignore those beginner and advanced labels and instead focus on our strengths, weaknesses, and needs. Even if the advice has gone around the block several times, if it’s new to us, we can still get value out of the information. *smile*

Do you like seeing labels like “beginner” or “advanced” on writing or publishing tips? What do those labels mean to you? Have you ever been disappointed or misled by those labels? Do you disagree with my perspective on why they’re mostly useless? Do you agree with what “advanced” should mean?

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What do you think?

33 Comments on "Writing Skills: Beginner vs. Advanced"

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Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Hmm, food for thought. As far as labels are concerned, that’s a tough one. I like them sometimes and other times they are misleading. Like you mentioned, I’m ALWAYS learning from your posts (every single one) I consider myself pretty knowledgeable as far as writing goes, but I’m not an expert by any means. So if I noticed that a blog post, written by another author other than yourself, is labeled beginner, I might click right past without reading. (In your case, your specific blog, I wouldn’t care if it’s labeled, “for newbie beginners only”, I’d still read the damn thing cause I ALWAYS learn something from your wise words) But another author, that I’m not as familiar with? I’d more than likely skip past it. And, now that I’m thinking about it…that probably isn’t a good idea. You’re right. There are all different definitions of beginner or advanced. I might be skimming past some really valuable info just because a post is “LABELED”
Thank you for opening my eyes!
And, as always, thank you for your wisdom.
Have a wonderful day!
Tamara

Carradee

I wouldn’t call the coordinate vs. cumulative adjectives a “beginner” thing. It helps some writers; isn’t needed for others—but either way, you can understand it and be able to apply it without actually knowing the jargon or understanding the technicalities behind the difference.

And then even your definition of “beginner” vs. “advanced” has issues, because so much “beginner” stuff actually does build on other concepts that are needed to understand and apply it—and the teacher may or may not be aware of that.

I’m more inclined to define “beginner” vs. “advanced” as “targeted at folks who need explanations of X, Y, and Z” vs. “targeted at folks who already know X, Y, and Z.”

But then, I also have noticed that there’s a lot of outright foundational stuff that so many have never been taught, regardless of their skill level.

Christina Hawthorne

I couldn’t agree more and find myself disregarding the “beginner” and “advanced” tags and skim the contents looking for what I don’t know. If it’s one item in ten that’s okay. I needed it. It also never hurts to have a refresher on what you knew, or thought you knew.

I’m currently reading (will finish today) Marcy Kennedy’s book on Deep Point of View. It’s all about my taking a step back to better (or for the first time) learn and advance my knowledge. I’m excited when I already understand a point she’s making, but more excited when she explains what’s long puzzled me. That earned her a mention on the blog today!

When I was younger (I had a pet saber tooth tiger 😉 ) we were taught English mechanics, but rarely wrote. That came in high school. How I wish they’d presented them in parallel. Then again, history was about dates and not stories and math…well, math was developed by mad scientists. 🙂

Anne R. Allen

Lots of wisdom here, Jami. I’m in total agreement about those fear-inducing posts “If you’re serious you’ll…” They bully writers into doing lots of silly things and wasting their time.

I think one of the big troubles is beginners generally don’t know they’re beginners. I had a commenter on my blog once who said, “I don’t need anybody to teach me how to write. I got A’s on all my high school English papers.” They call themselves advanced writers, know nothing, learn nothing, then self-publish unreadable dreck and blame reviewers for their bad sales.

My new webmaster insisted that we put on the form for subscription sign-ups a little window to describe your writing skills as beginner, intermediate or advanced. 90% say they are advanced. I don’t think that’s actually the case.

Carradee

90% say they are advanced. I don’t think that’s actually the case.

Dunning-Kruger Effect meets Overconfidence Effect, methinks. 🙂

Deborah Makarios

I often wonder this about knitting… but writing seems so much more complex that I haven’t even tried to figure out where I’m up to!

Jeff Stone

Although “learning curve” is a natural choice, its use nonetheless had special significance for me because much of what you wrote applied to my former students. Some of them also overcame dyslexia and other obstacles. Many of them were mislabeled by an array of people. I quickly learned the perils of preconceived notions, no matter how difficult it might be sometimes to avoid them.

As you suggested, we have to be careful to avoid assumptions and labels as writers. Deciding what’s new or advanced is usually much less important than knowing ourselves and our weaknesses in the pursuit of continuous improvement.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Yes! I agree that even “expert” writers aren’t fabulously skilled at everything.

Well, I see myself as an “intermediate” writer, in that I have more experience than the beginner who has barely written anything outside of school, but much less experience than an expert writer. So my definition of an “advanced writer” would be someone who has an amazing amount of writing experience. This writing experience includes reading, editing, and beta reading too. (So no, people who write a lot but almost never read don’t count for me; you can’t become a fantastic writer without being well read!)

Referring to an earlier comment, yeah there are people who believe that getting mostly As in high school English or even mostly A grades in their English literature degree in university, means that they are “advanced” writers already. I personally don’t count schoolwork as “writing experience”, lol, unless you simply mean experience in putting words together on paper to convey some meaning to the audience. Still, that someone would call themselves “advanced” when they barely have any story-writing practice outside of school strikes me as ridiculous!

It’s important to be modest, IMO. That way, we’ll never feel like there’s “nothing more to learn” and stagnate in our skills! How sad would it be to stop improving in our writing? 🙁

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Kassandra Lamb

I went back and re-read the learning curve post after reading this. I think this perspective is very helpful. We may still be near the “beginners” stage in the areas that are our weaknesses as writers, but “advanced” in those that are our strengths. Also strengths and weaknesses have to do with what comes most naturally to us. Dialogue is easy for me, but I do love me some backstory, so I need a kick in the pants on a regular basis from betas and my editor to keep my pacing on track.

And as the learning curve post points out, there may be skills we know so little about that we don’t even know they exist yet. 😀

Your posts have helped me clarify what to look for in craft articles and workshops. Do you know of one that goes into the nuts and bolts of HOW to weave backstory into the plot?

Carradee

I’m not Jami, but you’re not quite asking the right question. See, you’re assuming that “the nuts and bolts of HOW to weave backstory into the plot” exist—that there are specific definable factors for how to do it. That’s not strictly true.

For example, a fair bit of backstory can be woven into when and where you use “a” vs. “the”, because those little words change your meaning. Then there’s word choice (is that dim room “soothing” or “creepy”?). Then there are character reactions and associations (does teasing distress them or relax them?), etc. Then there’s how you can make judicious use of outright “infodump” sentences + how that can flow outright naturally if you’re strong in character and have a solid sense of their “voice”…

I could keep going, but the short of it is that there are many writing skills that influence and affect “how” you weave backstory into plot, but not really a “THIS is how you weave backstory into plot!”

Cindy
Cindy
Jami, I’m enjoying the posts. I really had to think what my writing process is. I started AP classes in junior high, then went on to accumulate three academic degrees, so the word that comes to mind at this time is…work. Writing is work, no matter what field of writing you ascribe to. I don’t think my toughest obstacle is the writing itself. I used to have to write a very well researched, academically/theologically sound 25 minutes of sermon every week, which usually included one specific word opinion Hebrew or Koine Greek of the Christian scriptures that was the learning point of the week. The focus of the sermon usually revolved around that point. If it was sort of a story telling week with the scriptures, I needed modern examples of the point I was making. If it was a sermon of ten minutes tops for the children it needed audio or visual reference, since most children these days have a higher percentage of visual learning. If I was teaching that week, I needed a different lesson for the adults versus the teenagers. Sometimes I had five different audiences if instruction, including Sunday’s. The point is, I had to be flexible and fast. I find writing in fiction has to be a slower process, simply because if what’s being conveyed. English is never as concise as other languages. Too many words can confuse or lead the plot astray and so on. And, as I turn some difficult story lines into… Read more »
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