Before I begin, I want to let readers know that my mother hasn’t finished reading Red Envelope yet, and I don’t plan to push her. Again, I don’t take it personally when friends and families have no interest in my work, or choose not to read a story I’ve written, or don’t finish reading. Once the story leaves my nimble fingers, it doesn’t belong to me. (I’ll keep you posted if she finishes it, though.)
What does belong to me when it comes to writing is that I don’t merely want to tell you a story; I want to tell you a story well—and to do that takes both “hard” and “soft” skills.
Now, before you start snickering, I didn’t make up those terms. I got it from The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills by Daniel Coyle. They’re fifty-two tips on how to engage with deliberate or “deep” practice (stop snickering, I said) to help you do something better.
To improve, you have to know what to improve; once you know what, you have to know how. Measuring (stop already!) is also necessary because what you can measure, you can potentially change.
So what’s a hard skill? Something that requires precision and has a beginning and an end. For writing, typing would be a great example. There are hunt-and-peckers (I swear I’m not doing this on purpose) out there, and people who live by their longhand.
Ultimately, your hard skills define your limits in exercising your craft, and improving or getting around them is key to doing something better. You can learn to type, increase your typing speed, learn shortcuts or shorthand, or even give up the keyboard and pen altogether and dictate—but whatever you do, if you want to improve overall as a writer, you’ve got to seek improvement of your hard skills.
This is important when it comes to writing more, and writing quickly. Measuring is easy for hard skills: you’re either writing faster or you’re not when you count your words per minute.
However, writing isn’t just about quantity.
A soft skill uses intuition (knowing something without knowing how you know it) and emotion, and this is much more difficult to quantify. In writing, it would be the sense of rhythm an author has for sentences, paragraphs, and chapters; it’s a feeling for words and punctuation like a maestro has for notes and pauses.
There’s a bit of arbitrariness when it comes to soft skills because they often depend on subjective criticism: we decide what we think is beautiful and well composed when we create something. However, with the distance provided by time, we can look back and, it is hoped, see where we have improved—sentences are clearer in meaning, images are more striking and unique.
Immediate means of improvement can be reading your work aloud to yourself or recording your story and listening to it later, to compare what was in your head or on the page with what it literally sounds like outside your head.
Even better would be to get feedback from people whose opinions you trust. Did they cry when you expected them to cry, laugh when you wanted them to laugh? Did they understand what you were trying to convey, not just emotionally, but intellectually? Did they have suggestions for how the structure could be tightened up?
Measuring improvement for soft skills requires more creativity and fluidity—neither counting tears nor sales ranking really tells you if you’ve made magic, I’d argue. With soft skills, you’ve got to pick your measurement: do readers compare your works and tell you which one had better pacing, or do you stumble less over your words when reading a passage for your latest book compared to the one before that?
My purpose is to tell you as many great stories as I can squeeze in while I’m here. That’s going to take speed, sense, and style. They say it takes ten thousand hours or pages before you get to the good stuff, and what they—the researchers on expertise—mean is, deliberate practice of specific skills will get you excellent results.
I know I’ll never be as good as I want to be, and my stories may never be great (it isn’t for me to decide), but I promise you, I’ll keep working at it.
Originally published on Prism Book Alliance on March 16, 2016