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The Five Paths To Writing Excellence

Careful observation over my lifetime has confirmed that there are five paths to writing excellence, neglect of any one of which will undermine any writer’s potential. I’m reflecting on a possible sixth.

  • The Theoretical path
  • The Practical path
  • The Critical path
  • The Literary Path
  • The Linguistic Path

I suspect that many of my readers have a visceral reaction to the inclusion of the theoretical path, so I’d better say a word or two about it.

First word: the use of the word “theoretical” to describe something impractical arises from inattentiveness. If a person says, for example, that something is fine in theory but not useful in practice, he has placed his intellect outside of his mind. He has spoken nothingness.

If something does not work, it is a bad theory.

Second word: Theory is a Greek word that means “to behold or contemplate.” Theory arises, not from the whims of the theorist or from his predilections, but from the act of contemplation. When a person contemplates, he attends to something, he looks at it, he beholds it.

The object of his contemplation is the source of his theory.

Writing theory arises from watching what people do when they write. Of course, the writer also watches himself write. Then the theorist starts asking bigger questions, like

  • Why are some people better at this than others?
  • What does it mean to be better?
  • Why do they do things that way?
  • What habits lead to good writing?
  • What experiences?
  • What studies?
  • What beliefs?
  • Why am I such a lousy writer?
  • How can I make the good writers depend on me and thus make a parasitic living off them.

From those questions asked by a careful writer arises a discussion that leads to profound theories and amazing insights into the depths of the human soul. The reason for that is at least two-fold: first, our language-faculty is perhaps the most mysterious and revealing power we human beings possess, and second, nothing is excluded from what we write about.

Third point: theory differs from practice in that it excludes nothing from its view. The practical writer has a specific goal in mind and wants to accomplish that goal. In this, he is honorable and just, and I don’t know of any higher praise you can bestow on a man.

However, the theorist is looking at the whole nature and purpose of writing. So he has no choice but to look beyond the immediate and practical needs.

So when we talk about the theoretical approach to writing, we are referring to questions that a master writer needs to answer. Questions like these:

  • What is writing?
  • What kind of thing is writing?
  • What are the kinds of writing?
  • Which of those kinds am I working on right now?
  • How is this kind of writing similar to and different from other kinds of writing?
  • What is the purose of writing and its various kinds?
  • How do writing and its various kinds relate to other human activities?
  • What is the relationship between writing and the natural, moral, philosophical, and theological sciences?
  • How have people written in various ages and why did they writer that way?
  • What were the powers and potentialities of that type of writing?
  • What is the history of writing and why did/does it develop as it does/did?

Does all of this really matter to the writer?

Only if he wants to know what he’s doing and why. Only if he wants to attain greatness.

One thing I’ve noticed about all the great writers about whom we know anything is that they understood at an extraordinarily high level the art they were practicing.

A new movement in literature always arises from a new paradigm or a new theory.

For example, why did the middle ages not produce any novels and why does the 21st century have such generally low regard for poetry? Or, in fact, does it?

And here, perhaps, is the crucial point for those who want to remain practical (like me): When you are walking the practical path to writing, why do you believe that certain practices, lessons, or tools will make you a better writer and others will interfere?

For example, why don’t modern writing programs teach invention, even though it was considered the main part of rhetoric for such a long, long time.

Is it because there theories have driven a wedge between writing and rhetoric that conflicts with the nature of things?

Is it because the quasi-Romantic theorists separated creativity from discipline?

Is it because people hold to a popular notion that writng just happens, that the genius is the power of writing? (Perhaps you can see the contradiction between that and the other popular notion that all teaching should be practical).

Writing is a craft. That is my theory. Therefore, it must be taught practically. And it must also be taught theoretically.

When I’m with Andrew Pudewa next week in San Antonio, Bryan, Houston, and Dallas I’ll be developing these thoughts further. The Houston workshop is full, but I understand seats remain for the other three. Bryan is pretty close to Houston.

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