You Can’t Skip Learning How to Write a Novel. Here’s Why


We’d all like to write amazing novels right off the bat. But great storytelling is a skill. And in order to use a skill, first you have to learn a skill.

Here’s what it looks like to learn to write great novels—and how to tell when you’ve mastered the skill.

We Want to HAVE Skills, not LEARN Skills

When I was fifteen years old, I started learning how to drive a car.

I live in the United States, and here in the US, it becomes legal to get a learner’s permit and start learning to drive at age fifteen.

So when I was fifteen, my mom and I went to the DMV. I took a written test to demonstrate that I’d read the driver’s manual and knew the rules of the road. And then they gave me my learner’s permit.

That meant that as long as there was an adult in the passenger seat, it was legal for me to drive.

And I remember when I was handed this little piece of plastic, I just stood there thinking—what?

You realize I’ve never driven a car before, right? You realize that driving is DANGEROUS and it is NOT SAFE for someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing to go drive a car on roads with other people around?

Hold on—have you given this to other fifteen-year-olds? Are you telling me there are OTHER LITERAL CHILDREN OUT THERE who ALSO DON’T KNOW HOW TO DRIVE who are DRIVING ON THESE STREETS RIGHT NOW?

In short, I was alarmed. Shocked. Appalled. I looked at other cars way differently after that, with this new question in my mind of, “Wait, do you also not know what you’re doing?”

The thing is, I did want to drive a car. I wanted to know how to drive. I wanted the freedom that comes with being able to get in the car whenever I want and take myself wherever I want to go.

But I did not want to LEARN to drive a car. Learning to drive a car meant spending time driving when I didn’t know how to drive yet. And driving felt like a really high-stakes activity to engage in when I didn’t know what I was doing.

I take vehicular safety very seriously, then and now. And I did NOT like the reality that I was going to be doing an activity that could cause serious injury or death to myself and others when I wasn’t yet good at the activity and didn’t have the skill.

The stakes were life or death.

I wanted to KNOW how to drive. I did not want to LEARN how to drive.

Unfortunately for me, because we do not live in the Matrix and I could not simply download the data on how to fly a helicopter straight into my brain, in order to gain the skill of driving a car, I had to pass through the learning phase.

In order to KNOW how to drive, I had to spend time LEARNING how to drive.

To Write Great Books, You Must Learn to Write Great Books

I find that this whole experience holds pretty true for writers.

No, the big goal for writers isn’t knowing how to drive. And happily, the stakes for writers aren’t life or death.

But writers want to WRITE great books. They don’t want to LEARN how to write great books.

And they’re trapped in the same reality I was at age fifteen, when I had a learner’s permit and a car to drive and a parent in the passenger seat and no driving skills.

In order to have the skill, you have to spend time learning the skill.

The 2 Phases of Skill Development

I think of skills in two phases. There’s the learning phase, and there’s the execution phase.

In the learning phase, you’re—well—learning. You’re practicing a skill you don’t yet have. You’re experimenting, sometimes getting things right and sometimes getting things wrong. You’re stretching yourself in ways that are unfamiliar to you.

In the execution phase, you’re using a skill you’ve already built. You’re creating art consistently at the level of skill that you’ve mastered. The goal here isn’t to gain new skills, but to make more stuff using your existing skills.

This goes for pretty much any skill, by the way. It’s true of writing and driving. It’s true of cooking and Olympic ski jumping and dog grooming and dentistry.

When a baker goes to culinary school and practices making the perfect apple pie, they’re in the learning phase. When they open their own bakery and bake fifteen apple pies a day, they’re in the execution phase.

Why We Think We Can Skip the Learning

The thing about writing is, the barriers to entry are low. There’s no requirement to go to years of dental school and then a residency like you’d need to become a dentist. You don’t even need a learner’s permit like I needed when I was starting to drive.

And from almost the moment we’re born, we spend all our lives consuming stories. So we’re absorbing on an intuitive level what great storytelling is.

We’re not intuitively absorbing how to do root canals; we know we’d have to go to school to learn that. But we have an innate sense of storytelling that we develop over years and years of consuming the stories all around us.

So while we all know that in order to become a dentist or drive a car, you need to intentionally learn those skills, we often miss that in order to write great novels, we’ll also have to go through a learning stage.

First-time writers want to write great books right off the bat.

More than that, they often feel like they should be able to write great books right off the bat. They know what great stories are, and they have great ideas. They can jump right in and create amazing novels themselves, right?

Put another way, first-time writers want to jump straight to the execution phase.

In fact, I can cut the “first-time” part off that sentence. Writers want to jump straight to the execution phase. Just about every writer I’ve ever met is eager to get to the execution phase.

And while that’s absolutely an excellent goal, and it would be a little strange (though not unheard of) to want to write a wonderful novel without ever wanting to publish it, the reality is: you just can’t skip the learning phase.

It’s not possible to jump straight to the execution phase and produce incredible work right from the start. You can’t execute on skills you haven’t built yet.

What This Looks Like for Writers

So what does this actually look like for writers? What does the learning stage look like and what does the execution stage look like?

Let’s take an example writing skill, and then look at what happens in each stage.

The example skill I’ll pick is scene writing: the ability to write excellent scenes. If you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, this probably doesn’t come as a surprise; it’s no secret that I love crafting amazing scenes.

Great novels are made of a series of great scenes. So writing great scenes is a skill that every novelist is going to need to develop.

Great scenes move the story forward. They have interesting external action. They keep the readers reading page after page. They move the plot forward, and they also move the character’s internal arc forward.

The reader understands why the events in the scene matter to the character and how they impact that character on an internal level. And the reader feels an emotion as they read the scene—the writer conveys an emotion so powerfully that the reader feels it.

Honestly, we could subdivide everything I just said into a whole list of subskills that make up the skill of writing great scenes. But for the purposes of this example, we’ll just say that the skill in question is the skill of writing great scenes.

What Happens in the Learning Stage

Here’s what happens when you’re in the “writing great scenes” learning stage.

The Learning Stage

You write a scene.

Maybe, when you read what you’ve written, you think, “I love this!” Or maybe you think, “This is utter garbage; where did these words even come from? Surely not me.”

Either way, you go test it by sharing it with someone—an alpha reader or an editor, NOT your mom who’s going to tell you you did a great job and then stick it on the fridge.

That person will read the scene. And they’ll say some version of, “It’s a start, but it really didn’t do anything for me.”

And you’ll know, okay, this scene isn’t working yet.

What happens next?

The Work of Learning

Well, now you have to figure out how to make this scene work. So you might come back to this podcast and listen to a bunch of scene editing episodes. You might pick up some craft books. You might read some novels that you love and study them to see how they did it. You might take a writing course. You might join a critique group. You might hire an editor or a book coach.

Or maybe you just write and rewrite and write and rewrite and try to figure out how to make your scenes work.

The Result of Learning

What will the result be?

Well, assuming that you practiced in effective ways that do help you increase your skill, the result of all this work will be that you get better at writing scenes.

You will gain the skill of writing scenes in a way that you weren’t able to do before.

And you’ll probably end up with one scene, or a small number of scenes, that work—that you’ve honed into really great scenes.

Features of the Learning Stage

There are a few things I want you to notice about the learning stage—some features of this process.

First, the learning stage involves study, practice, and feedback.

One hallmark of the learning stage is that you’re trying something new.

You’re probably turning to experts—whether in novels or craft books or podcasts or by hiring an editor or coach—to teach you information you don’t already know.

You’re practicing, iterating on a piece of writing.

And the learning stage is especially effective when you’re getting feedback to help you determine where you’re doing things effectively and where you should try something different.

Second, the learning stage involves focusing on one piece of writing and progressively elevating its quality.

This might mean that you write a dozen versions of one single scene rather than giving that scene one pass of editing and moving on to the next.

The riches of the learning phase come from focusing on one thing deeply rather than moving quickly from one thing to the next.

And third, the learning stage is slow.

Going deep on one piece of writing takes time. Editing one scene a dozen times over takes time.

I’ve worked with writers who write an entire draft of their novel this way. The writer and I both know that they’re in the learning stage, and we treat the draft accordingly. We take our time on each scene, practicing a few specific skills until they’re present and effective within that scene before we move on to the next scene.

I love coaching like this. It’s incredibly rewarding and fun for both me and the writer. And it’s also slow. It takes a long time to get through a draft like this.

That’s a feature of this stage, not a bug. When you take that time, you have the space that learning requires. You’re actually able to level up your skill in ways that aren’t available to you when you move fast.

What Happens in the Execution Stage

Which brings us to the execution stage.

You’ve built the skill of writing great scenes. You can confidently write a scene and know that it works. Woohoo! You’re in the coveted execution stage!

Here’s what the execution stage looks like.

The Execution Stage

You write a scene.

When you read your scene, you might see some things that you want to change in it. But it’s so different from that first scene you wrote, way back in the learning stage. You’re confident that on a fundamental level, this scene works.

Maybe it fits in your book, maybe it doesn’t; maybe there are ways to make it even more effective. But as a scene, it works.

If you hand it to your readers at this stage (an alpha reader or an editor, remember, not your mom, who can’t be trusted to give you unbiased feedback), they’ll enjoy it. They might have feedback, too, but they agree: on a fundamental level, this scene works.

What happens next?

The Work of Executing

You move forward and write more scenes!

You keep writing your manuscript—scene after scene after scene, and they all work. They’re all crafted using the skills you developed in the learning stage.

You can repeat those skills over and over and over, and know that all your scenes are reaching the same general level of quality.

You can write and edit a whole book this way. You can write and edit multiple books this way. You can build a career as an author this way.

The Result of Executing

What will the result be?

You will complete an entire manuscript where every scene reflects your current level of skill. As you do, you’ll ingrain more fully the skills you’re executing, and it will become second nature.

Assuming you’re satisfied with and proud of those skills, you’ll be satisfied with and proud of that manuscript.

You’ll publish that book. And you’ll start the next book. And you’ll continue writing, continue publishing, continue executing on those skills for as long as you like.

Features of the Execution Stage

Just like in the learning stage, there are a few features I want to bring to your attention about the execution stage.

First, the execution stage is not focused on acquiring new skills, but applying the skills you already have.

In this stage, you won’t be seeking out new knowledge. Your focus isn’t on reading craft books or taking courses or practicing new skills.

It’s possible that you will grow as a writer here. It’s possible that your skills will increase.

But most likely, the growth you experience in this stage will be incremental, and it will mainly be centered on refining and cementing the skills you already have.

Second, the execution stage involves creating a volume of work at the same level of quality.

Where the learning stage is about focusing on one scene and iterating on it over and over in order to raise its quality, in the execution stage, you’re focusing on writing many scenes at the same level of quality.

It’s like the baker who opens a bakery and sells fifteen apple pies a day. That baker isn’t concerned about experimenting with new spice blends to find their favorite amount of cinnamon for the perfect apple pie. They’ve already done that, and now they’re baking lots and lots of apple pies using the same recipe.

And third, the execution stage is fast.

When you can execute a skill confidently and move forward to the next thing, you can speed up your writing process.

The manuscripts you write when you’re in the execution stage might take you half the time of the manuscripts you write in the learning stage.

And the more you execute, the faster you’ll get.

There are a lot of things that are appealing about the execution stage, a lot of reasons why writers really want to jump straight here. But this is definitely one of the big ones: writers would LOVE to be able to write amazing book after amazing book after amazing book in a span of just a few months.

And when you’ve built your skills and you make it to the execution stage, you can.

We All Start by Learning

The reality is, everyone starts in the learning stage.

No one WANTS to start in the learning stage. We’d love to start in the execution stage.

There are so many skills I’d enjoy if I could just skip to the execution stage. I’d play so many instruments. I’d dance so many styles of dance. I’d paint paintings. I’d cook fabulous meals.

But we all start in the learning stage, in every skill, in every area of life.

Writing is no different. We all start in the learning stage here, too.

If you persevere through the learning stage, eventually you’ll make it to the execution stage.

I can drive a car now. I have a license, not a learner’s permit, and I no longer feel like the DMV made some grave mistake in allowing me to legally be on the road.

I can edit novels now, too. I had my own learning stage as an editor, where I had to practice skills I didn’t have in order to be able to give writers effective feedback that would actually make their stories better. I was doggedly determined to become an editor, and so I worked hard through the learning stage, and now I get to execute.

From Learning to Execution

Now, I want to add here that it can be really difficult to tell when you’ve passed from the learning stage to the execution stage.

After I got my learner’s permit, I took driving classes with a driving instructor—the kind who has a car with two brake pedals so he could stop us in an emergency. (He never had to use the second break with me, for the record.)

Then I took the practical driving test, where an examiner from the DMV sat in my car with me while I drove around town and demonstrated my skills.

And then they gave me my driver’s license.

Even when I got my license, though, I still didn’t feel very secure in my skills. I felt like a novice driver who was still in the learning stage, still trying to practice my skills enough to feel confident about them, still a little appalled I was legally allowed on the road.

I kept practicing. I kept driving. And eventually, months or years later, I’m honestly not sure when, I realized that I had left the learning stage and was in the execution stage.

In fact, I didn’t recognize that on my own. I think I realized it when someone else told me that I was a good driver.

The same thing happened to me with editing. I knew I was in the practice stage for a long, long time. Then I started getting good responses from writers and encouraging comments from my editor colleagues.

And eventually, a long time after I’d crossed the threshold from learning into executing, I realized that they were right—I’m in the execution stage.

The Key to Make the Leap: Feedback

Did you catch the clue that tipped me off with both driving and editing?


I realized that I’d crossed from learning into executing when I got positive feedback from people who knew what they were talking about.

If you’re not sure which stage you’re in, I’d encourage you to seek out some feedback.

Choose a piece of your writing that represents your best work right now. You might focus on one specific skill you want to highlight, or you might want to get a general sense of how your writing is working as a whole.

Share that piece of writing with someone you trust—either a professional editor or book coach, or a reader who reads stories like yours.

And see how they respond.

Does your best work receive the response you want? If so, you’re probably in the execution stage.

Does their response leave something to be desired? Is it not making the impact you hoped it would? If so, there’s probably something more for you to learn in order to be able to create that effect.

Remember, there’s no right or wrong here. Both learning and execution aren’t good or bad; they’re natural, universal stages of skill acquisition. And the feedback you get on your writing is just data you can use to inform your goals and focus in your writing.

The amazing book you want to craft is on the other side of the learning stage.

I hope you’ll persevere and build the skills that empower you to write it.

Happy editing!

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