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Narrative structure is powerful. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

Yesterday, there was a person on a writing group I’m in posting that you don’t need to study the craft to write a publishable (presumably “good”) novel. As the conversation went on, I learned that she had a graduate education. It might surprise some of you hear this—why would a person with a graduate level education say you don’t need to study? After all, THEY obviously studied…something. And further, high levels of knowledge of one thing do not necessarily equate to any level of knowledge in another.

There are a lot of reasons educated people hold this opinion… ego, disrespect for the craft in general, a focus on art over craft… mostly I find it to be ignorance.

I am here to tell you that taking this kind of advice will do you more harm than good. First, advanced or graduate education often comes with a lot of writing practice—and most forms of academic writing actually follow narrative (story) structure in some way. It’s just not called that in every discipline.  For example, the paper written after applying the scientific method follows narrative structure: Introduction (beginning, where you set up the “story” of your research); Methods (the middle, where you show what you did or experienced to get to the end); Results (the climax before the end); Discussion (the ending where things wrap up and what you’ve learned is revealed).

If you studied the sciences (hard or soft) or the humanities, you likely learned how to structure your research methods, results, and thoughts in a paper. Guess what folks? Anything you write that tells the story of something you did or learned follows a version of narrative structure. It is the DNA of ordered human communication and has been for thousands of years.

If you have an advanced degree in just about anything, you’ve already learned a lot of the craft and have begun to build your intuition for narrative structure. This is why people like Isaac Asimov (I, Robot) and Diana Gabaldon (Outlander) were such naturals despite no formal training in creative writing. If you don’t have that background or you do, but simply can’t (yet) see the connection—you need to study the craft to get a handle on narrative/story structure. An advanced education doesn’t guarantee you’ll be a great novelist—but it does put you many steps beyond those who don’t have one. Therefore, it’s disingenuous to tell other novice writers that they don’t need to learn the craft just because you may have had some measure of success without doing so.

As I’ve said on many occasions—I wouldn’t grab a scalpel and begin operating, having no training.  I wouldn’t open a psychological practice or drill teeth.  I wouldn’t start fiddling with uranium.  I wouldn’t stand on the assembly line at Chrysler, sell life insurance, handle a gun, or even try to make a proper Big Mac without some training or study. Let’s have a little more respect for each other and the craft of writing than that, please. Creative writing (especially) is hard work.

I’m very passionate about this topic because one of the things I do is teach narrative structure at NASA. Yep, that’s a job.  (So is tech writing and editing, journalism, web copy writing, and more.) I teach scientists, engineers, techs, admins, managers, etc. to relay information in proper story form. Why? Because NASA recognizes that narrative form helps the reader/listener absorb information more completely and remember it with more accuracy. It other words—when it’s done well, the story (and the info) sticks with them.

Folks, there are always going to be people who rebel against the “craft” side of creative writing and that’s fine. However, it serves nobody well to insist that others don’t need to educate themselves in it either. That has always offended me…. it’s so harmful to novice writers who search for some measure of recognition or success. If you don’t care—if you are a hobbyist, that’s fine.  But even so, I wonder… if you wanted to draw, would you settle for stick figures or would you want to learn and improve? Believe me (or don’t), if you thoroughly understand the craft of story-telling and learn to apply it, you will have a valuable ability—a kind of power. Something that can improve your life in many ways. So please don’t short change yourselves by ignoring the craft aspect of writing or thinking you are above it.

Peace and good writing.

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