I’m still in the deadline cave and self-banned from Twitter, but I wanted to post about something I’ve realized through this revision process.
It’s probably safe to say we all want to get better at our jobs, whether that’s writing or something else. But how much of what we do is instinct and how much is skill? And are those things more related than they seem?
What Is Instinct?
A common definition of instinct is an innate impulse, or just knowing something, without having to learn it or be taught. Much of animal behavior is considered instinct.
When we start a new activity, we often hope it requires more instinct than skill. We want to be good at things without really trying. We want to have a natural talent and have people say how brilliant we are for reaching the level we have so quickly.
In other words, instinct seems like a shortcut to greatness. The danger with this approach is that if we don’t excel right away, we might give up, convinced we’re no good at it.
What Is Skill?
On the other hand, skill is acquired through training and practice. Lots of practice. Skill seems like the hard way. The way that if we knew how much work it was going to take, we wouldn’t have started.
But once we’ve started on the path of learning a new skill, we often hope it requires more skill than instinct. After all, we’ve already put so much time and energy into this thing we want it to be something that we can get better at. We’d hate to go through all that effort only to discover it can’t be learned.
We also tend to value something more if it takes hard work. If it was easy, anyone could do it and our job would be less meaningful. Hard work is often what makes something worth doing.
Is Good Writing Created from Instinct or Skill?
I think some aspects of writing seem like instinct, but they’re really skills. Think of a musician who has studied beats, rhythm, and composition. Many of those same skills can be applied to writing. So if a musician takes up writing, they might seem like they have a natural instinct for the rhythm of prose, but in reality, they’re just transferring their knowledge to a new activity.
Others might be better at plotting, and maybe that’s because they spent hours on internet forums analyzing how they would have fixed the plot holes of a blockbuster movie. Still others might have studied psychology, so they’re able to weave complex characters without batting an eyelash.
We learn many things without realizing we’ve learned them. This can be good or bad. It’s nice to know things we didn’t have cram for. However, it also means we’re not consciously aware of having the skill, so it’s harder to apply.
During this revision process, I learned something about sentence construction thanks to my awesome-dipped-in-glitter (TM) friend Kristen Lamb. But more interestingly, I learned that I already knew it and hadn’t realized it. Cool, right? No, not really.
I knew the writing at the beginning of my story was rougher than at the end, even though I’d edited those early chapters a bazillion times. I couldn’t recognize what was wrong with them because I didn’t know I’d picked up the skill for creating better sentences sometime during the writing process.
Those sentences looked fine to me. The grammar was correct, but they lacked punch. Then Kristen pointed out the issue, and I was immediately able to apply the skill I already had to fix them.
Maybe we can solve this problem by paying attention to the “why” we should do things a certain way. If we consciously know our skills, we’re better able to apply them. We’ll be better at our job if we know why we’re good at it.
Otherwise, we belittle the progress we’ve made if we don’t realize we’ve improved. Or when we do recognize that we’re competent at something, we chalk it up to innate instinct rather than something we worked for. We need to own our skills.
Do you think writing is instinct or skill? Are there things you’re naturally good at? What things have you struggled with? Have you ever had to learn something twice because you didn’t realize you already knew it?
Photo Credit: Sias van SchalkwykPin It