Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

The benefits of learning the craft

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Disclaimer: This text started with the title “The benefits of learning the craft and knowing when to break the rules”. As the implied sub-topics grew, partially influenced by a few comments on an older text ([1]), I decided to split it into two parts (of which this is the first). There might be overlooked mistakes in references, problems with structure, or similar, that arose from the late division.

Reading The Craftsmanship of Writing (cf. [1]) brings me to the importance of developing deeper skills of the craft before getting carried away with the art or, in a work-setting, being content with one’s ability. This goes hand in hand with actually putting in an effort, going through training, continuing developing activities even when they are boring,* etc.

*I have heard the claim that the main difference between elite male and female golfers is not e.g. length of drive, but the much greater number of hours that the men have spent training putting. I do not vouch for this being true, but it would be an excellent example of such a developing activity.

For instance, when I worked in IT, I met many who had five or ten years of experience, but still moved on a level of accomplishment that I had surpassed within my first year—because I actually strove to be good at what I did. (E.g. through spending time reading books on relevant topics and actually thinking.) Similarly, some years ago, I made a switch from Java to PL/SQL. I was dropped straight into a project, compensated for my limited* knowledge of PL/SQL and Oracle by spending the half-hour train-ride in the morning reading and doing the same on the way back in the evening—on top of the work-day. If the time allowed it, I also tried to squeeze in some study during the lunch break. Within weeks (!), I had surpassed the level of some of the weakest permanent employees, and by the end of the project I was considered one of the most knowledgeable on the team. Had I worked miracles? No: some others had just spent years without ever picking up a book.

*My then employer had exaggerated my previous knowledge and experience considerably towards the customer.

For instance, many who take up writing, painting, whatnot, appear to want to jump straight to the “art”—and are the worse for it. Not only do they severely limit their own practical options, but a deeper knowledge, ideally mastery, of the craft would also have given them more insight into the artistic aspects.

Looking at painting, Monet was considered a rebel and sometimes condemned as incompetent by the art establishment of his younger years. However, he did not just pick up a brush to paint a sunrise. No, he actually spent years in traditional art school, before which he had gained considerable experience e.g. drawing caricatures, starting at a fairly tender age. As proved by some more conventional early works, he did have a mastery of the craft of painting and he was fully capable of painting e.g. a traditional, quality still-life. Later on, he spent years or decades developing his new techniques. (The “perspiration” aspect of genius is also often forgotten…)

Looking at music, the Beatles spent a significant portion of their early career playing in German clubs—for many hours a day, day in and day out. Contemporaries claim that the Beatles that returned from Germany were levels above the Beatles that originally left. Only the post-Germany Beatles were good enough to launch the career that followed—after having learned the craft. Indeed, one of the claimed* reasons for the removal of Pete Best is that he did not develop like the others did. Lennon/McCartney might or might not have had a successful career as song writers without these many, many hours, but the Beatles would certainly have been a footnote in history. Moreover, the “artistic” or “creative” aspect of their music grew over time, even post-breakthrough.

*There are several conflicting claims and I cannot guarantee the truth.

Now, I have never even attempted to go through a complete list of successful “rebels” and paradigm changers—but almost every time that I have read up on one in the past, I have found an extensive amount of training. Only very rarely, if ever, is their success a matter of just raw genius. When we look at those considered all-time-greats (whether rebels or not), very extensive training from an early age is very common. (Mozart is a well-known example.)

It is true that the training is not always formal, that many are self-trained, and that the training need not be there at the beginning of a career. (Cf. the Beatles.) I would even argue that a too school-like training can be counter-productive, especially for those of great potential.* However, to expect success or accomplishment without mastering the craft is highly optimistic.

*Cf. earlier discussions of education topics, e.g. [2].

Literature might seem to be an area of exception, in that some highly unexpected writers reach great success with little sign of skills. However, this success is usually* based on catering to the broad masses, often specifically female readers, often in the form of “porn for women”, as with e.g. “Twilight” or “Fifty Shades of Gray”.** Such success is not necessarily related to literary value or value of any kind beyond cheapest entertainment. Often the core is simply being able to know what will move certain readers***. Consider Gordon Korman: I read (and re-read) a few of his “MacDonald Hall” books in the 1980s, while laughing myself silly. During my visits to Sweden I re-read them and was torn between amusement and horror. On the one hand, there were a few good laughs even for adult me (not as many and not as intense, but I will not deny that I did laugh out loud a few times); on the other, the stories and some characters were so exaggerated and unlikely that they felt like the work of a teenager.**** Even some things that I remembered laughing at in the 1980s only seemed silly now. Except for the considerable nostalgic value, I would likely not have continued the reading. Visiting the linked-to Wikipedia page, I find that the books were written by a teenager… Korman likely combined a great deal of talent, even be it immature and undeveloped, with an understanding of what he, at the time, would have loved to read. This, in turn, matched what many other boys of the same age loved to read—but not necessarily what middle-aged men love to read.

*For a partially different example, see an excursion on Terry Pratchett below.

**Disclaimer: I have read neither and go by reputation.

***Which is a virtue, but only rarely a source of a higher value than entertainment.

****Note the lesson that over-thinking the logic, continuity, realism, whatnot, of something can be harmful: If the target audience does not appreciate the difference between e.g. the logical and the illogical, the author could unnecessarily limit himself. Then again, it can be hard to know when someone will complain: I was annoyed at continuity errors in my Donald Duck comics even as a small child, e.g. when Gyro Gearloose invented a “first” time machine or a space ship for the umpteenth time, or when Goofy sometimes had super powers and sometimes not.

Excursion on Terry Pratchett:
For a great many years, Terry Pratchett was my favorite author—mostly because of his great sense of humor and his vivid imagination, but also because he often wrote books that provided food for thought. (Unlike e.g. Tom Holt, another highly popular writer of comic fantasy, and J. K. Rowling, who both seem almost exclusively focused on the entertainment aspects.) In at least one case, “Small Gods”, I would have considered the book highly worth reading even entertainment value aside.

It might be tempting to view Pratchett as another Korman*, just with a target audience ten or fifteen years older. However, while his success might have had a similar root, he reached a far higher level of “literary” accomplishment, which makes him a partial counter-example: He did this without having mastered large parts of the craft of writing, including grammar and style, and (for more literary purposes) e.g. plot and character. His plots were often haphazard or mixed things borrowed** fairly directly from other works; his characters were often charming and fitting their respective roles, but most were quite shallow and one-dimensional.

*Measured by the Korman books that I have read. Going by Wikipedia, he has written a great many later books as an adult, and the comparison between teenage Korman and adult Pratchett might be unfair. Pratchett certainly grew more skillful over time.

**Likely intended as homages or joking references. Often, as with “Wyrd Sisters” and “Maskerade”, the borrowing was obviously intended to be recognized.

Still, his books would have been better, had he had a greater mastery of the craft. He could have written books that did not just gain success through comedy (and often fairly cheap comedy, at that), but were actually taken seriously in literary circles, were his deeper thoughts and ideas gained a wider readership of actual appreciators*.

*As opposed to the many who just read him for the entertainment and never thought deeper on the contents of the books.

Similarly, he got away with not writing in chapters*—but did his books benefit from not having chapters? Might they not have been ever-so-slightly better with chapters? Indeed, the few books that he did write in chapters were often of a higher quality. (But likely because of correlation, not causation.)

*This example should be seen in light of his book jackets often proudly proclaiming “Complete amateur, doesn’t even write in chapters” (or something very similar; presumably, from an early review). The quote makes the example irresistible to me in the context of mastery of the craft.

As an aside, I find it amusing, even paradoxical, that Pratchett, himself, spoke positively of his background as a journalist and how it had helped him with the craft of writing (not necessarily using those words). My feelings about what passes for good writing among journalists is no secret…

Excursion on mastery not being enough:
A reverse fallacy is quite common, in that someone who has mastered the craft, earned a diploma, put in a lot of hard work, or similar, is expected to excel. Very often, this will fail due to a lack of inborn talent, e.g. in that an additional educational level (e.g. high school, bachelor, master) does not remedy an IQ deficit, that more musical training does not turn a Salieri into a Mozart, etc. More generally, I suspect that there is a common fallacy of assuming that “X is A and Q; ergo, A leads to Q”, without looking into the true connections and, especially, without considering whether X might also be B and C.

Excursion on the wrong type of learning:
It is often important to learn the right aspects of the craft. For instance, if anecdotally*, graduates from a Swedish high-school design/media/whatnot program were found useless by the intended employers, because they had spent three years learning various programs—but never relevant theory, principles, etc. This matches my own IT experiences, in that many seem to believe that just learning a particular program or programming language is all that is needed—which goes a long way to explain why their work was quite poor. I would take a beginner in a given language who understands topics like modularization, separation of concerns, the importance of maintainability, …, over a language expert who has no clue about software development. (And, yes, during my own Java-to-PL/SQL switch, most of the general skills and understanding that I had developed carried over.)

*I read about this situation some fifteen or twenty years ago. Unfortunately, I do not remember the details.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 8, 2019 at 2:29 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Speaking of craft, a lot of writers who care about such would say that, if you feel you need to use italics to create artificial emphasis for a word, you should probably choose a better word.


    September 9, 2019 at 2:26 pm

    • In a fiction context, I would likely agree; in non-fiction context, such as this, I consider it better to pick the “natural” word and use some type of typographical emphasis where needed.

      However, I have gone through the emphasized places in the above text and I might agree if you say that I over-use emphasis. (Or e.g. “e.g.”, “however”, parenthesis, “whatnot”, whatnot.) Some of the emphasis is fine as it is (in my opinion), but there are two groups that can be disputed:

      Firstly, those where the emphasis can be seen as entirely unnecessary, because the word is enough, as with the three cases of “craft”. Here I suspect that I am unconsciously influenced by speech patterns.

      Secondly, those where I would have preferred to leave the emphasis out, but were experiences with the Internet have taught me that doing so is risky. (Not necessarily elsewhere, however.) The two “just” are good examples, because they are words that are often overlooked by sloppy readers and readers who have a preconceived opinion of the text and read what they expected the text to contain—not what it does contain. Other common problem words include “many” (as opposed to all), “some”, “not”, “greater” (e.g. of two evils). In some cases, such emphasis can also lessen the impact of malicious distortions on third-parties. (Especially in PC contexts, these can be quite absurd. Consider e.g. https://michaeleriksson.wordpress.com/2010/07/07/unfair-argumentation-methods-viii-us-example/ Note that my first few years in the blogosphere included a great many political discussions.)


      September 9, 2019 at 7:18 pm

      • To be honest, the use of italics for that purpose almost never seems useful to me, but it’s mostly a style thing. And I agree that it’s more for fiction than non-fiction. Whenever an author uses it, I hear Chandler Bing from Friends.


        September 10, 2019 at 3:52 pm

  2. […] pleasing point is that Olof, an aspiring artist, makes a similar observation to my recent text on the benefits of learning the craft: he has artistic aspirations, but sees himself hindered by his lack of craftsmanship. At the end of […]

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