Being a Better Writer: Always Keep Learning

Shorter post today guys, one in line with some thoughts I’ve had over the last few days. Let me start by telling you a story.

There’s a writing convention near where I live called Life, the Universe, and Everything, or LTUE for short. It’s a bit of a Science-Fiction and Fantasy convention, which isn’t exactly unexpected when you consider who’s attending, but part of its core—a large part of it—is the pursuit of the arts of writing. Lots of authors attend (including ones like Brandon Sanderson), panels are held (you might remember I was on a few last year) and in general lots of talk about writing is had.

It’s definitely worth going to if you can swing it (and their website is here, just in case you’re curious about looking into it). Lots of authors, editors, and publishers talking about writing stuff in dozens of panels.

Right, so my story. Each time I’ve gone to LTUE, I’ve attended panels. As many as possible. And last year, that got a question from someone I was talking with. Upon hearing the subject of the rather basic panel I was attending, they looked at me in surprise and said “But you’re published and you’ve written great stuff, why are you going to that panel?”

I think my answer surprised them, to say the least. Maybe it diminished my stance as an author in their eyes, or maybe they reflected on it and walked away impressed. I don’t know. But I looked at them and said something along the lines of “Everyone does things differently. Besides, it doesn’t hurt to keep brushing up on the basics in case I missed something.”

As I said, I have no idea what that fan thought of my response. I don’t remember how the rest of it panned out. I just remember that shocked look on their face when I told them I was going to be attending a panel that covered a very basic writing topic.

But I went anyway. And I sat through a panel given by a bunch of other authors that I could have just as easily volunteered for and given. Instead, I sat in the audience, listened to them as they presented their topic, listened as younger writers asked questions, and did my best to learn something.

See, there’s a mindset out there in the world today—one that’s certainly not limited to writers, mind—that stipulates that once we reach a certain “point,” usually vaguely defined by some milestone or outside individual, we can “stop learning.” There’s no need to go on. We’ve succeeded. We don’t need to learn anything anymore. We’ve conquered the need for education, and all we need to do now is continue in our craft.

Now, I’m going to pause and make a note here that surely a number of those espousing this view are, in fact, far from actually being as educated as they claim to be, by which I mean that while purporting a number views they themselves are not nearly far enough along the journey of life to realistically know as much as they think they know. That is to say, if there was a sliding scale of knowledge on a particular topic from one to a hundred, this is the individual who sits at a quarter of the way and believes themselves to be at the hundred mark.

However, I don’t think this accounts for all those who have this view. There are definitely those sitting at the seventy-five mark or even further who also hold that they’ve hit the peak and can “stop learning.”

But here’s the real truth behind it. You’re never going to hit that peak. Those people who think that there is a perfect moment where one can just “stop learning” because they know it all are of the same mindset as those individuals who think there is a limited amount of “good fiction” and that other authors need to stop writing so that someone else can have their attention (no, I’m not joking, there’s a whole movement of people with that mindset protesting against authors who are doing well and telling them to stop because they’re hogging the limited resource of readers) or that the publishers should be the only vetting source of books (and not, you know, the public).

Accept this now: You will never reach the peak. The mountain top we’re striving for? It’s ever growing. There should never be a time when we look at a topic and think to ourselves “I know all there is to know on this topic, so I’m not going to think about it.” There is always something new to gain.

Now, that doesn’t meant that you’ll find it. I’ve sat in on panels or read other writer’s advice blogs before and walked away with nothing more than a refreshed mindset of the topic at hand (which is in and of itself helpful). Sometimes that’s just what happens. But there are other times when I’ve been listening to a panel or a podcast on an incredibly basic topic (like describing your characters to the reader) and hit upon moments of brilliance, either from my own mind connecting two distant thoughts or the informational source itself explaining things in a way completely new to my mind.

But I don’t regret that time spent in panels on topics I already knew where I learned little or perhaps nothing at all. Not just because it’s nice to have a refresher course, but because it was a good reminder. You’re neveron top of the heap with no where else to go, no matter what you might think. There’s always going to be more for you to learn, new tricks for you to pick up, or something that you missed.

Always keep learning. Don’t make the mistake of thinking “I know this already, I’m good.” You may be surprised by what you’ve missed. Bite the humble bullet, and realize that you’ll never know everything, that there’s always something to be gained from being the student, not the master.

You’ll be amazed what you might learn.

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