I’d like to tell you a story (as is my wont as a writer).
When I was in high school, I was really good with computers. My dad works in computer programming, so my family had a computer in our home in the 1980s, long before having a computer in every home was “normal.” I grew up playing computer games and learning to use the early DOS systems. I remember using a computer before there was a hard drive on it, which meant I had to insert a floppy disk just to boot up the operating system.
I’ve always been just slightly “above average” in computer skills. I’m no computer genius, and there’s lots of intricacies that a real computer expert would understand but I don’t. However, I know more about handling my computer and resolving its issues than most people I know. I’ve taken my computer apart, changed out components, etc. I can fix my own issues without needing the Best Buy Geek Squad.
To make a comparison, I’m the equivalent of a guy who can change a tire, do an oil change, and install new brakes; but who needs a professional mechanic (or at the very least, a manual or Google) to do a really complex repair. “Real” computer people laugh at my “skills,” but I know enough to take care of my own computer problems.
Because I’m above average in computer skills, I thought I could get an education in Computer Science and pursue that as my career. I started taking programming courses in high school, and I was the top of my class. I then decided to enroll at Rowan University in the Computer Science major.
My freshman year, I was getting straight A’s, and helping other students when they couldn’t understand things. My sophomore year, I got mostly A’s and some B’s, and one of my teachers showed one of my programs to the class as an example “an innovative approach” to the problem. Had I continued in the Computer Science major, I could have learned enough at the junior and senior levels (and then later, on the job) to become one of those “real” experts I described.
But I was bored.
I remember to this day the exact moment I realized the Computer Science major wasn’t for me. I was on the computer lab at school, working on a program for class. There were several other students there, discussing things that were slightly above my head. Prior to this point, I was used to being the top of the class, because my above average skills placed me ahead of all of the other less experienced students. By junior year, however, the program had weeded out the students that were only taking the classes for Gen Eds or for a minor. Students who decided “this isn’t the major for me” had dropped the program to pursue something else. I was about to become one of them.
The more advanced students, while discussing things I could almost, but not quite follow, began discussing articles in computer magazines. They talked about independent study that they did, and things they had learned outside of class. And that’s when it hit me.
I’d only ever be “average” (or slightly above average) if I only learned what they taught me in school. If I wanted to excel, I would need to do independent research, apply myself outside the classroom, and expand my learning so that I was teaching myself things the “average” students would never learn.
And I didn’t want to do that.
I had no real “interest” in computers. My entire reason for becoming a Computer Science major was because I was good at it, and I figured I could get a well-paying job with the degree. I had the ability, but not the passion.
Which is something I should have realized when I started writing stories in my notebooks instead of taking notes. One semester, I filled two spiral bound notebooks with a hand written story, and got a C in the class. I still have that story, but I don’t remember one damn thing I learned in that class.
These experiences taught me something: if you don’t have the drive and passion for something, it’s not worth doing. I could be a computer programmer today, and I’d be miserable at work. I’d probably be spending my spare time at work writing on the side, when I had time between assignments (in fact, that’s what I do now at my pizza delivery job; when there are no orders up, I write on my phone, and in fact that’s how I’m writing this blog post now).
Which brings me to the main point of this post: Research.
In order to become the best at anything, you need to learn as much as you can about it. What you learn in school isn’t enough, though college is a good start. Some people will say “You don’t need a college degree to be a writer.” They cite people like Neil Gaiman, who, from what I understand, never went to college. He’s also a frickin’ genius. If you’re NOT a genius (and most of us aren’t), I recommend getting the best education you can get.
In his book, “On Writing,” Stephen King describes four “skill levels” of writers. To paraphrase: Picture a pyramid. At the bottom, the widest point, is the vast bulk of “unskilled writers.” These are average people who have likely never studied writing beyond what they learned in high school. At the very top, the narrowest point of the pyramid, are the elite, genius writers. Bestselling authors whose skill leaves many of us in awe.
The middle two levels are where most of us, as writers, will fall. You can be “good” or you can be “great” without necessarily ever achieving the level of genius writers. Now, more of us are probably just “good” instead of “great,” but that doesn’t mean you’ll never improve. Climbing the pyramid, from good to great (or maybe, just maybe, from great to amazing) takes more than natural talent. There are no “natural savants” in writing. There are no writers comparable to musicians and composers like Mozart, who was composing symphonies when he was five years old. No writer has ever written the Great American Novel before grade school. Writers simply aren’t born; they are made.
So if you want to become an expert writer, you need to hone your skills. You need to learn as much as you can. I recommend college, because I learned a LOT in Rowan’s Writing Arts program. Then there are writer’s conferences, seminars, and books like Stephen King’s “On Writing” or Sol Stein’s “Stein on Writing.” I recommend both; each one taught me a lot.
Even if you get a degree or attend a seminar, however, you’ll need to do more. If every other writer out there has been through the same education and attended the same seminars, you’ll be the same as them. You’ll be “average.”
I don’t want to be average. I want to be great. I don’t think I’m there yet; I know I’m a good writer, but I have a lot of room for improvement. So I research. I read books about the craft of writing. I search online, studying everything from grammar and punctuation to publishing and market trends. I ask people on Twitter for advice. I don’t sit in a little writer’s bubble, the way I did as a Computer Science major, thinking that I know enough. I devote a large portion of my time and energy into learning independently, as much as I can.
Because I study so much, I know some things about writing and publication that others don’t. I’m sure others also know things I don’t, and I try to share my knowledge and learn theirs whenever possible.
I bookmark websites with writing advice. I reread passages over and over trying to absorb what they say. I keep a copy of “The Elements of Style” by my computer, and take notes in the margins. I never stop learning.
So my advice, as a new and still learning and struggling professional writer, is to research as much as possible. Learn what you can, when you can, and never stop asking questions. If you don’t know something, look it up. Dictionary.com is one of my most used bookmarks, because I’m always trying to understand words better. Study grammar. Research what it takes to get published. Find out what the real differences are between self and traditional publication (I may just write a future post about that particular subject). Learn everything you can on the side. The difference between a writer who researches and studies on the side versus one who doesn’t is the difference between an A versus a C student. It’s the difference between average and successful. It’s the difference between doubting whether you’ll make it versus finding the tools to make SURE you make it.
I was just a slightly above average computer programmer. I intend to become a great professional writer.