Why Writers Resist Measuring Their Craft (And Why You Shouldn’t)


Do you understand your own creative process? Do you know how you craft the stories you’re telling?

Many writers—even very successful writers!—don’t.

But YOU can. You can study the patterns in stories and use them to make your writing and editing so much clearer.

Recently, I went to a book festival. It was this two-day festival with tons of authors who were all signing books and hanging out with readers, which was really cool.

The part I was most excited for, though, was the panels. They had a lot of panels where authors were discussing topics related to their books and craft tips on how they created their books.

Many of these authors are authors whose books I’ve read and enjoyed, and I was really excited to hear them talk about their writing.

Plus, the majority of these writers, maybe all of them, are traditionally published. And I don’t work within a traditional publishing company, so I don’t have a ton of opportunities to mingle with a lot of traditionally published authors. So I was really excited to hear their perspectives on writing coming specifically from the trad pub world.

So I went to this festival . . . and it was an absolutely fascinating experience.

Book Festivals and Writing Courses Are not the Same

The first thing I realized is, I have spent a lot of time in the writing education space in the last many years. I’ve taken the courses and gotten involved in communities of editors and book coaches and writers who are thinking very, very hard about how to write stories.

And not only how to write stories, but how to edit stories, and how to teach people how to write and edit stories. I am just immersed in this space where we’re constantly exploring what it takes to craft an absolutely amazing story—and also how to communicate what it takes to other people in ways that are useful and effective.

One of the things I like to say here on the podcast is that I love to make the subjective objective. I aim to take the subjective experience of story and turn it into objective systems and practices and procedures that you can learn and implement in your own writing.

I have not spent a lot of time at book festivals. And book festivals, it turns out, are a very different beast.

I came ready to take notes, excited to get a different perspective on how to tell amazing stories, and even thinking I might write a podcast episode or two for you based on the things I learned at this festival.

And I guess that is in fact what I’m doing. But this episode is very different from the episode I was imagining.

What Authors Know About Their Writing

So I go to this festival. And I have this whole lineup of panels I’m excited to watch. And there were many people who asked great questions, questions where I really enjoyed hearing the variety of perspectives.

But here’s what I found so fascinating:

There were a lot of questions, and I mean a huge number of questions, where writers were asked about their creative processes. They were asked how they made decisions about the content of their books, their plots, major elements of character development, which pieces of story they chose to show on the page and which ones they decided not to include.

And they really didn’t have answers to those questions.

I mean, they did. Whenever someone asked an author a question, they always responded.

But their responses weren’t anywhere near the scope or depth that I was anticipating.

“Listen to Your Characters”

One answer in particular came up again and again and again, so many times that I wanted to make a game of it. If I’d taken a sip of water every time someone gave this answer, I’d have been so hydrated.

Here’s the answer: “I just listen to my characters. I let my characters tell me what they think is going to be best for the story.”

That’s it. That’s how these writers solve major, major questions about the content and scope and plot and arcs of their stories. They ask their characters.

The thing is, this answer isn’t wrong. I would never tell a writer not to listen to your characters. I think knowing your characters and listening to them is absolutely important.

But this answer is so limited. It’s so ethereal. Intangible. Unspecific.

It is set squarely in the world of subjective writing strategies. There’s nothing objective here. No replicable process. No system. No metric for assessing what’s working and what’s not. No measure of a story’s success outside of personal gut feelings.

And when you’re faced with major writing challenges, challenges that have a huge impact on your story’s plot and purpose and impact on readers and even on the access your ideal readers might have to your book, personal gut feelings just feel like a really difficult way to navigate those challenges.

Solving the Big Questions With Intuition

I mean, one of the questions that was asked was: how do you decide whether to have an open-door or closed-door sex scene in your YA novel?

THAT IS A HUGE QUESTION. That is a BIG DEAL. That will have an enormous impact on your plot and your characters and your readers and the level of gatekeeping that will stand in between your book and your readers. That’s not something to be taken lightly.

And yes, the answer that was given to this question was, “I ask my characters and find out what they want.”

But you don’t have to just feel your way through this. You don’t just have to gauge your gut feeling, lean on your intuition, and hope your muse is steering you in the right direction.

This is what making the subjective objective is all about. I study story in order to find ways to transform that gut feeling into objective, measurable strategies you can use to give you something more concrete and clear to rely on than just whether your characters told you they wanted you to close the door on your way out.

How I’d Solve This Challenge

To give you an example of what that looks like, here are the questions I would ask to figure out whether the YA sex scene should be open- or closed-door:

What’s the purpose of this book? Why are you writing it?

Who exactly are you writing this book for? Imagine one person—one specific individual who’s going to read this story and absolutely love it and feel better equipped to navigate their own life because they’ve read your story. What do you want to communicate to that reader? What do you want them to take away from your story after they’ve read it?

Ask your editor. Does your editor think that an open- or closed-door sex scene is a good fit for the story?

Look at your genre. Will this scene satisfy any genre conventions? Is it the best way to satisfy those genre conventions, or is there another way that would be more effective?

Look at your story structure. Will this scene move the plot forward in an important way? Why is there a sex scene in the story at all? What is it meant to accomplish?

Think about your publishing route, and especially if you’re in traditional publishing, talk with your editor about your audience’s expectations and the distribution of your book. What gatekeepers is your book going to face? How can you best ensure that the heart of your story, the idea you most want to communicate to your ideal reader, reaches that reader?

Understand What Matters About Your Story

To be clear, I’m not saying, find out what the gatekeepers want and write that.

I’m saying, figure out what’s most important about your story, and be uncompromising in getting that core on the page.

Not because your characters told you to, but because you know what your story is about and why you’re writing it and what essentials it absolutely must include in order to communicate your meaning to your readers.

And there are so many tools you can use to help you do that. There are so many questions you can ask to help you solve the big story challenges you face. You don’t just have to rely on intuition—which is what asking your characters amounts to.

And to be clear, asking your characters isn’t wrong. Because all the factors I just listed ultimately feed into what your characters will do.

If you’re really in tune with your characters, if they’re really well aligned with your purpose for your story and the way you want it to impact your readers, then all of that is going to come out in your characters’ actions.

But focusing only on what your characters tell you they want means relying exclusively on your intuition, with no objective tools or strategies to help you.

And to me, as someone who has spent years studying story and learning how to make the subjective objective . . . that just sounds really hard. Way harder than it has to be.

There’s Another Way

Honestly, as I sat in these panels at that book festival, I was astonished. Maybe I shouldn’t have been, but I was. I was astonished that all these writers could write all these excellent books that readers love, and build entire careers around doing that again and again for book after book, and yet not be able to articulate to other people, or even to themselves, how they do that.

I was reminded that the story principles that are second nature to me after years of study and practice are not clear or obvious to the average person, be they reader or writer.

I was struck with how absolutely bonkers the publishing industry can be: that you can be struck by lightning, get a publishing deal, get your book published, share it with readers, and build a career around your ability to create more books your readers will love, again and again—and fly by the seat of your pants the whole way, with no clarity about how to reliably create the product that you’re selling.

I mean, seriously, if you’re building a career around your ability to create a product—and make no mistake, that’s what you’re doing if you’re aiming to build a career as an author—don’t you want to be able to articulate a reliable way to produce that product?

I want to pause here and say, I don’t say any of this to critique the authors at this festival, or the festival itself. It was a wonderful gathering of people who love books and love sharing that love with each other. And it was a fascinating snapshot of what writing can look like in the traditional publishing world.

My real point is: you can intuit your way through the entire writing, editing, and publishing process. You can let your intuition and gut feeling lead you through your entire creation of your books. That’s how probably almost every writer has begun, and many, many writers stay in that space forever, and they do very well for themselves and craft stories readers love.

But you don’t have to do that. It’s not the only way.

There are ways to communicate intangible, subjective story concepts in tangible, practical, objective ways. There are processes and systems and tools for understanding stories, for writing stories, for editing stories. There are principles that people who understand story have studied and codified in order to make your writing and editing life easier.

That’s what this entire podcast is about. I’m here to make the subjective objective.

This Isn’t Always Popular

Now, in the past, I’ve absolutely heard pushback against this.

I don’t hear a lot of pushback at this point in my career because most of the people who follow me long enough to engage with my editing content and form opinions about me have kind of self-selected in. The writers who listen to this podcast listen because you really want these objective editing tools.

But in the past, I’ve definitely heard pushback against the idea of creating objective frameworks to define story.

Writers would encounter the idea of the six elements of story, inciting incident through resolution, and they’d say, that sounds formulaic. Or they’d hear about genre conventions, core elements that are specific to each genre, and they’d say that sounds even more formulaic, like you’ll be locked into a trap of boring, derivative stories.

They’d hold up this idea of innate creative genius, of the superiority of their unbridled imagination.

They’d treat story theory as an enemy, a limitation, a stifling of their creativity.

They’d treat that intuitive approach to writing, the one where you ask your characters how to solve your major story challenges, as an ideal to aspire to, the sort of truest and best form of creativity.

What Does it Mean to Be Creative?

Really, I think that comes from our kind of collective imagination of what it means to be creative.

I think that there’s a public perception that writing is intuitive.

That writing is subjective.

That great writing is based on an innate genius for storytelling that you either have or you don’t have.

That there are no rules for writing, no rules for creativity.

And that if anyone ever suggests a “rule” for writing, they’re wrong, because writing is about tapping into your innate genius and letting that genius shine through on the page.

I think there’s a broad public perception that that’s how creativity works. And I think that seeps into the way writers approach their writing. It shapes what they believe about their own ability to create.

And honestly? I don’t believe a word of that. I reject it entirely.

I don’t believe that great writing comes from an innate genius that you either have or don’t have. I believe that writing is a skill that can be practiced and learned.

I don’t believe that writing is exclusively intuitive or subjective. I believe that writing involves patterns, and those patterns can be observed, and measured, and taught, and learned, and consciously applied.

What Jazz Music, Swing Dance, and Storytelling Have in Common

A few months ago, I went to a swing dance event.

We’re talking a massive event where over a thousand swing dancers filled a dance hall, and for a week, we danced to world-class jazz music played by these incredible musicians in a sixteen-piece big band.

And I was talking about the dance and the music with one of my friends, who is a fellow dancer and also a nuclear physicist. And yes, I promise there’s a reason why I’m talking about jazz music and swing dancing and nuclear physics on a writing podcast.

My friend and I were talking about what makes jazz jazz and what makes swing swing. Like any art form, they can be done well or done poorly. There’s jazz music that moves you, and there’s jazz music that falls flat.

And like any art form, many of the things that make jazz music wonderful or swing dancing wonderful feel intangible and undefinable. It’s more than just playing the right notes at the right time or stepping on the beat. Truly amazing music and dancing goes beyond technical accuracy to touch its audience in ways that are difficult to articulate.

And as we debated what exactly these intangible, inarticulable elements are, my friend said this:

“The universe is not less beautiful because it can be measured.”

As soon as he said that, I said, hold up, I have to write that down and share it here on the podcast, because that’s it. That’s the truth. Here it is again:

“The universe is not less beautiful because it can be measured.”

Jazz Music Can Be Measured

In the context of jazz music, my friend meant that those intangible, inarticulable elements are, in fact, knowable. We can identify them. We can study them. We can practice and learn them and use them intentionally.

And the best of the best jazz musicians have done this. They know what makes jazz jazz.

And their music is better for it. Measuring the part of jazz that seems like intangible magic in no way takes away from the beauty of jazz. In fact, it only empowers expert musicians to create more excellent music.

“The universe is not less beautiful because it can be measured.”

Stories Can Be Measured

In the context of writing, I mean that the principles that make great stories work are knowable. We can identify them. We can study them. We can practice and learn them and use them intentionally.

You don’t have to intuit your way through stories because we have figured out how to make the subjective objective. People who study stories have identified the patterns great stories share.

And knowing those patterns and using them in your writing in no way takes away from the beauty of storytelling. It only empowers you to write more effective stories more quickly and easily.

“The universe is not less beautiful because it can be measured.”

Who Benefits When We Don’t Measure the Universe?

No one loses when we understand how art does what it does. No one loses when we measure the universe.

And on the flip side, almost no one gains by not measuring the universe.

The only people who benefit from not measuring the universe are the creators who have already achieved an enormous amount of success and who profit off the idea that the art they create is scarce, derived from a genius only they possess, irreplicable by any other creator.

JK Rowling and all the many people who profit off of JK Rowling’s writing fall into this category. She would claim that there are no rules to writing. And she has a vested interest in making her readership believe that she is the only one who can write such magical stories as hers. That hers is a unique genius, not a craft anyone can learn and practice and master.

And to be clear: when I say that she benefits from not measuring the universe, I mean only that if she treats writing as a zero-sum game, she “wins” by presenting her writing as irreplicable.

I don’t mean that her actual writing is improved because she has not measured the universe.

The benefit is purely a financial one. It’s based on perpetuating the myth that writing is limited to a few inherent geniuses.

Because if the truth got out that this is learnable, that this is objective, that this is measurable, that this is something we can break down and understand—if that truth got out, then everyone would have the capacity to tell their own stories, and the scarcity would disappear.

And of course, the secret that I imagine JK Rowling doesn’t want you to know is: that’s the truth.

This is measurable. This is knowable. And everyone, including you, has the capacity to learn it and tell your own stories.

No Loss, Only Gain

The reality is, everyone benefits when we measure the universe.

Even all those authors at the festival. The ones who have published multiple books to great success, but can’t articulate how they create their art.

They have come so far in their writing. They’ve written and published wonderful books and can fill festival halls with signing lines that wind around the room.

I just think, how much farther could they go if they could leverage the knowable objective principles of story along the way?

How much easier could writing be if writers could combine their intuition and gut feeling with intellectual tools and processes?

How much more repeatable would it feel to create more books if writers treated creativity not as an intuitive magic, but as an objective process that can be studied and learned and practiced and optimized?

Clearly, those authors at the festival have the capacity to tell amazing stories. They’re already doing it, and are very successful at it!

And their art is no less beautiful because it can be measured. In fact, I believe that measuring it only empowers us to increase the beauty and create it more consistently.

You Don’t Have to Measure the Universe . . . But You Can

So here’s my bottom line, the takeaway from what is in many ways kind of a very long rant about how we imagine creativity:

You do not need to study the objective principles that underpin great writing in order to achieve commercial success. There are many, many authors who have achieved great commercial success and whose writing is so intuitive that they struggle to articulate how they create their art.

But the principles that underpin great writing can be studied. Story is not an impenetrable mystery. Story is knowable.

And knowing it doesn’t deprive it of its artistic beauty. The universe is not less beautiful because it can be measured.

In fact, if you want to improve your writing, you will benefit most from measuring the universe.

You Will Benefit From Measuring the Universe

You will improve your writing the most by treating writing as a skill which can be learned.

You will improve your writing the most by making the subjective objective.

You will improve your writing the most by learning the patterns that people who study stories have observed.

You will improve your writing the most by practicing the tools that enable you to apply those patterns to your own writing.

You will improve your writing the most by measuring the universe.

And you will actually make your writing easier along the way because you will have so much more to rely on beyond your intuition.

As an editor and book coach, this is my approach to the writing and editing process. And here on the podcast, it’s my goal to make the subjective objective so you can leverage it in your own writing and editing.

Now you get the bonus treat of knowing that when you listen to this podcast, when you study story like this, you’re learning story principles that most people, even many published authors, don’t know.

Thanks for sticking with me as we measure the universe together.

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