Writing Skills: Beginner vs. Advanced

by Jami Gold on February 25, 2016

in Writing Stuff

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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33 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Tamara LeBlanc February 25, 2016 at 8:29 am

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

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Jami Gold February 26, 2016 at 5:17 pm

Hi Tamara,

LOL! Aww, thank you. 🙂

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Carradee February 25, 2016 at 9:30 am

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.

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Jami Gold February 26, 2016 at 5:56 pm

Hi Carradee,

I understand. It’s hard to even define the labels, much less figure out which label should apply. LOL! I like your take of foundational vs. non-foundational information. 🙂 But even with that, are we talking about grammar school foundations or writing craft foundations or storytelling foundations or…? 😉 Thanks for chiming in!

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Carradee February 26, 2016 at 7:20 pm

Foundations in general tend to be skipped, on all sorts of things (not just writing), but the more basic the foundation, the more likely it is to be skipped. Experts don’t think of it, “naturals” understand it intuitively because it’s compatible with how they think, and then others who need to learn it are left hanging.

Case in point: “Cats are good pets” = “All cats are good pets.” Some folks will say a statement like that and claim that it’s necessarily a generalization or an opinion—but that violates basic logic and linguistics. Unless you define the context, limiting it to a matter of generalization or personal opinion, “X is Y” is an objective universal statement. Full stop.

One basic way to demonstrate that is by swapping them: “Cats are good pets” ≠ “Good pets are cats.” If “X is Y” meant “Some X is Y” (and, insofar as logic is concerned, “many” and “most” = “some”), then “Cats are good pets” and “Good pets are cats” would produce the same Venn diagram. They don’t.

Er. I realize this may be a bit confusing for readers who don’t know Venn diagrams.

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Carradee February 26, 2016 at 7:25 pm

Note for those who do understand Venn diagrams: “Some X is Y” is not synonymous with “Some Y is X,” but both produce a Venn diagram with X and Y circles that are partially overlapping. That’s what I’m referring to. The phrases themselves are have different nuances, due to their approach of looking at the data, but they’re referring to the same data.

By contrast, “All X is Y” puts X completely inside Y, and “All Y is X” puts Y completely inside X. The data isn’t compatible.

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Jami Gold February 27, 2016 at 12:51 am

Hi Carradee,

Yes, people tend to turn opinions into objective, factual statements, but that’s often not logical. 🙂

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Jami Gold February 27, 2016 at 12:49 am

Hi Carradee,

Very true! Your observation about the experts, the naturals, and everyone else is spot on.

Those who teach have to try to put themselves into their students’ shoes and watch out for assumptions–just as you did with the Venn diagram example. 🙂 I try to do the same here on my blog too, but you’re right that it can be very hard. Thanks for sharing that insight!

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Christina Hawthorne February 25, 2016 at 11:59 am

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. 🙂

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Jami Gold February 26, 2016 at 6:05 pm

Hi Christina,

Yes, I do a lot of skimming looking for those random gems too. 🙂

And like you, I think refreshers are good. As you said about Marcy’s book, sometimes we “know” something, but by studying it deeper, we understand. And LOL! at your school memories–totally with you on the math. Thanks for stopping by!

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Anne R. Allen February 25, 2016 at 12:19 pm

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.

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Carradee February 25, 2016 at 2:15 pm

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

Dunning-Kruger Effect meets Overconfidence Effect, methinks. 🙂

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Jami Gold February 26, 2016 at 6:11 pm

Hi Carradee,

LOL! Yep, very true. 🙂

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Jami Gold February 26, 2016 at 6:11 pm

Hi Anne,

I agree completely about how many (most?) beginners don’t realize they’re beginners. Like I explained in my learning curve post, we start at the unconscious incompetence stage, where we don’t know what all we don’t know. 🙂

It take humility to admit (even just to ourselves) that we don’t know something, and that trait seems to be beyond some people. Whereas I’ve been at this for years, and I’d still rather call my skill level intermediate instead of advanced. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your insights!

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Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins) February 27, 2016 at 10:06 am

That said, Jami, we can confuse humility with crippling self-doubt, and telling the difference in ourselves isn’t always easy.

Sometimes what looks like arrogance is simply frustration of not knowing how to do something, versus pretending you do, two different things to my mind, but the frustration comes out as denial.

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Jami Gold March 5, 2016 at 10:12 am

Hi Taurean,

Oh, yes, self-doubt can play a huge role here. And there are many times when a “fake it ’til we make it” attitude works well, so by no means is “pretending” always wrong either. 🙂

I think that’s why something like finding a balance is never something we can check off our to-do list. It’s a constant balancing act that we struggle with. Thanks for the comment!

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Deborah Makarios February 25, 2016 at 2:25 pm

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!

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Jami Gold February 26, 2016 at 6:13 pm

Hi Deborah,

I think many skills are like this. I’ve seen some recipes labeled advanced just because it has a few more steps. 🙂 Thanks for chiming in!

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Jeff Stone February 26, 2016 at 2:37 am

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.

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Jami Gold February 26, 2016 at 6:15 pm

Hi Jeff,

Great point! Yes, labels can create obstacles because of those preconceived notions. As you said, what’s more important is an attitude of continuous improvement. 🙂 Thanks for sharing those insights!

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Serena Yung February 26, 2016 at 1:19 pm

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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Jami Gold February 26, 2016 at 6:24 pm

Hi Serena,

I’m not sure I’d ever feel comfortable calling myself an advanced writer. I always feel like there’s so much I can improve. 🙂

And I agree–there’s a big difference between the ability to put words together for a class assignment and the ability to tell a story with increasing stakes, fully developed characters, etc. As you said, it’s far better to be modest and avoid stagnation. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee February 29, 2016 at 4:33 pm

Ah, but that’s why you have to define what you mean by “advanced”, to limit it to a specific context! “Advanced writer” = too broad all on its lonesome.

For example, I’m definitely advanced in English grammar. I can cook up sentence pretzels that are perfectly logical and grammatically correct…yet will confuse at least 40% of readers. (Probably more.)

That “advanced” status has its downsides. I can get stuck looking at grammar and usage, especially when tired or distracted, and thereby forget to account for how folks less educated or less technical about such things will see a sentence. (Ex. “Even if rejection letters make you laugh, they’re not necessarily without pain,” = grammatically and linguistically correct, but it’s very formal and indirect. I used that sentence structure somewhere recently, in a context where things didn’t turn out all that great. >_> Took me too long to realize that I was getting “read” as an argumentative bitch.)

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Jami Gold March 5, 2016 at 10:20 am

Hi Carradee,

Very true that expertise tends to be narrow, so it’s hard to ever define someone as “advanced” in a broad category. 🙂 And great example!

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Kassandra Lamb March 1, 2016 at 5:38 pm

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?

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Carradee March 3, 2016 at 10:05 am

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!”

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Jami Gold March 5, 2016 at 11:26 am

Hi Carradee,

Interesting perspective! Now I really want to ponder the idea. 🙂

I see what you’re saying about word choice and voice, and I think maybe combining those with a strong understanding of when or where they’d flow might help. I’ll keep pondering. LOL! Thanks for chiming in while I’ve been behind in replies all week!

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Carradee March 6, 2016 at 2:00 pm

Those things, yes, but they aren’t even the only way. If you’ve ever read Ender’s Game, that has snippets of direct dialogue (no dialogue tags) that reveal backstory. Some books use prologues. Some have interludes. Some use a dual plot where one is backstory for the other. (I did this with Destiny’s Kiss, but it’s more thoroughly done in Kathleen Duey’s series A Resurrection of Magic—which isn’t finished but looks as if it’s going to be a fantastic example of this technique.)

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Jami Gold March 9, 2016 at 2:56 pm

Hi Carradee,

Very true. There are plenty of examples where backstory progressed the story and didn’t slow it down. On some level, that might be all that matters. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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Jami Gold March 5, 2016 at 10:50 am

Hi Kassandra,

Exactly! 🙂

Hmm, I can’t think of any posts about weaving backstory into the plot, but that sounds like a great post idea. 😀 Let me mull over it and/or keep an eye out for you. LOL! Thanks for the idea!

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Cindy March 29, 2016 at 10:36 pm

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 fiction from reality, I want to do my very best in honouring both story, the character and those that experience that kind of event.
Religious leaders of all faiths have these stories of things that they experience or witness that cannot be discussed outside a select group of people. The task in mining them is to make them familiar without being obvious to their origin. I think. Backstory, but also part of current story is how I think of them. Both can advance the plot forward.

As to process, I think I’m a “medium” in fiction writing, advanced in non fiction writing. Many of the skills transfer, but perhaps the language terms are different. I’m well acquainted with Venn diagrams, but what about character view? These are the questions I have to consider.

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What do you think?

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