I am almost 30,000 words into my NaNoWriMo novel. One lesson I learned about my writing is that rushed writing is not my best writing. There’s merit to just getting writing done, and the experience has been very instructive.
Today I’m going to break down the distinction between craft and practice–they are similar but not identical–and what writers can do to get their craft skills into their final works.
Craft Versus Practice
Craft is something poorly understood by novices and the uninitiated. Think of craft in writing the same way that you would think of techniques in making visual art.
Every method artists use with brushes and canvas or chisels and stone has analogues in writing.
Mastering craft involves learning these techniques.
However, practice is something else. It’s the application of craft in a particular work. The best theorist in the world who fails to apply their theoretical knowledge creates a bland or unreadable work.
There’s a mystique to craft that it doesn’t deserve. After all, it’s probably the most formulaic part of the writing process. By mastering craft, a writer can look at the ins and outs of a text.
In theory, this gives some room for a greater understanding of how things work. It’s fair to say that writers with no craft knowledge suffer for their ignorance. Some writers are “naturals” in the sense that they have an inherent understanding of what a story needs, but these people are often repeating patterns they’ve seen in others’ works. More rarely, a writer may invent a style unique to themselves, but even in this case they have decisions they make that shape their work (see e e cummings’ poetry for an example).
Consider craft as an ideal. A writer uses craft as the foundation upon which their writing rests.
Practice is the actual writing itself. It’s what’s left over once the dust settles. The act of writing is a messy process, and the unwary writer can know what to do without being able to apply that knowledge successfully.
Bridging the gap between craft and practice is a struggle for writers who come from a theoretical academic background but haven’t spent their entire lives writing. I find it especially hard-hitting during NaNoWriMo because the jump in output corresponds to less time to plan and execute writing decisions.
Method 1: Planning
Planning is underrated. One difference I felt between my first novel and my NaNoWriMo novel was that I took my dear sweet time outlining and crafting my first novel as I went along.
Going into things quickly can be a major source of error. That doesn’t mean that all the “pantsers” are wrong. As I explained earlier this week, you don’t necessarily need a lot of planning.
However, there are things that benefit from planning. If you want elements like foreshadowing, symbolism, and certain narrative devices in your work, a plan is crucial.If you want elements like foreshadowing, symbolism, and certain narrative devices in your work, a plan is crucial. Click To Tweet
To get around some of this planning requirement, I’m writing my NaNoWriMo novel out of order. When I put something in that’s foreshadowing something else, I immediately write the linked piece or at least sketch out the basics for later fleshing out.
However, pacing and coherence depend on planning and are harder to fake in this way.
Method 2: Revision
Revision is what comes after the writing process, the polar opposite of planning. Where planning involves sketching out a story ahead of time, revision involves making it fit the goals.
There are downsides to revision. Many writers hate editing because it lacks the exciting novelty of creating something new. However, even the best writer has to revise their work for it to be at the utmost level of craft they are able of achieving.
Revision is a great way to add in things that get missed on the first go, but it’s also a way to examine pacing and balance. Editing of various forms takes place at this step. A writer interested in maximizing their craft will split their revision into two forms:
Structural revision involves making major changes to the text at a low resolution. This would include adding, moving, or cutting scenes.
The goals of structural revision can include answering beta readers’ questions, shifting the balance of exposition and action, and focusing the work on particular themes and events.
During structural revision, the writer tries to get the work to move in a desired direction.
For instance, a mystery novel may add or remove a romantic subplot. In the first case, this could provide character development. In the latter, it could be an attempt to streamline the plot and de-emphasize something readers focus on contrary to authorial intent.
This is revision that only an author can really embark on, though feedback can shape the decisions made in this process.
Think of structural revision like adding a room to a house to make it fit the homeowner’s needs.Think of structural revision like adding a room to a house to make it fit the homeowner's needs. Click To Tweet
Because this is a process that ties into vision, it’s safe to engage in structural revision as soon as the author feels like doing so. A writer who spots issues with their work can start this step immediately.
Local revision involves taking particular passages that fall short on craft and introducing important elements.
For instance, an author who rewrites their dialogue is engaging in local revision.
Unlike structural revision, local revision is unconcerned with altering the direction of the text. Instead, it fixes errors in execution. An author engaging in local revision benefits from giving themselves time away from the text so that their re-engagement can be fresh.
This is also the revision that best benefits from external feedback. While the author must drive the vision of their story, outsiders can often identify shoddy execution that a writer thinks is normal.
Writers can also use tools to assist in this sort of revision. I swear by Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and ProWritingAid myself, but there are countless books and pieces of software that can help writers improve their work.
Method 3: Engineering
People talk about planning and revision, but I think there’s a third method to bring craft into writing. I call this engineering, because it draws on a practical framework based on craft.
One of the greatest tools for story engineering is the Hero’s Journey, based on Joseph Campbell’s work. This attempts to break down a story into parts similar to the classical three-act structure, but with different details and specifics.
Engineering relies on methodological processes not tied to a plan. While similar to the planning method, it is formulaic rather than pre-planned.
For instance, the writer engaging in engineering is choosing a part of a framework to fill out. That could be a step in a character’s development, a dramatic arc, or a particular world-building exposition.
These are not pre-planned. The writer is engineering elements on demand, using a toolbox of known elements that will eventually coalesce into a story.
The intersection of craft and practice is the writer successfully bringing their ideas to life on the page. This relies on technical skill that can only be acquired through practice.
To maximize their performance, writers plan, revise, and engineer their works so they can bring their vision to life. This is a multi-step process and depends on value judgments and external feedback.