What kind of writer are you?

I remember going to lots of writers’ conferences, back when I lived in Philadelphia. And then going to more writers’ conferences after I moved to Los Angeles. And also taking writing courses and attending writing workshops by the dozens.

Along the way, I met a lot of “wannabe” writers (and also a lot of “don’t wannabe” writers, but that’s a different story).

I remember reading a lot of their work, some of it quite good. But much of it was quite bad. And I remember thinking: “How can you claim you want to be a writer, and then ask someone to read something put together so sloppily.”

I’m talking about errors in punctuation and spelling, poor and repetitive sentence structure, inadvertent subject-verbs disagreements. I’m also talking about unclear references and – more fundamentally – disordered thinking.

I never had to resolve to become a more professional writer; it was a drive that just came naturally to me. Like a carpenter who made straight cuts in the wood, or a plumber who produced tidy solder joints in the pipes, in my bones I felt it was important to master my craft and write at least professionally, if not well.

I make the distinction because writing well is all about touching your audience and leaving them changed. Not everyone can do that. But anyone who claims to be a writer can crank out professional quality work.

And once you’re capable of cranking out professional quality work, adhering to all of the rules is no longer of prime importance.

Think of Picasso. He could draw like nobody’s business, a single line conveying a tremendous amount of image and information. But after he mastered that skill, he broke free of “realism” and could produce images no one had ever seen before – presumably the exact images he wanted to show to the rest of us.

I can create a nonsense image, too. But since I can’t draw very well, it’s more random than Picasso’s and unlikely to reflect exactly what I’m trying to convey.

So what kind of writer are you? Are you comfortable stringing together some words in hopes your production touches your audience and leaves them changed – changed in the way you intend? Or are you the kind of writer who wants to master your craft so that you have the best chance of conveying your fullest depth of meaning precisely?

Over the years, in some cases, I have helped aspiring writers clarify their thought processes, delve deeply into their innermost feelings and ideas, and dredge up some powerful material that they might never have been able to produce on their own.

But in almost every case, I have been able to teach aspiring writers to craft better material, reflecting more precisely their intended meaning, and often carrying more power to change their readers than the works they had previously been coughing up.

I don’t take any credit for this; it’s just a gift I have learned to share. But I think it’s an important calling, and I hope to continuing sharing this love of mastery for many years to come.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings about all this in the comments below.