When am I Ready to Start Writing: Preparedness of Knowledge and Style

One of the most crucial prerequisites for writing, in my mind, is preparedness of knowledge and style.

Preparedness of knowledge entails that one has sufficient knowledge (or thoughts/ideas) of the topic one wants to write about. This seems pretty self-evident, since, as magical as the process of writing might be, we could never write say a biography of Napoleon without first gathering a set of facts about Napoleon’s life.

This preparedness of knowledge can be achieved with different depth; superficial preparedness makes you familiar with a couple of facts relevant to your writing. For instance, the time of birth of Napoleon, the place and duration of his conquests etc. While this superficial preparedness might be sufficient for certain types of writing; for instance to write a simple report about some obvious facts; it is most likely insufficient for creating exquisite writing on a complex subject. To achieve this, we will have to achieve deep preparedness. Such preparedness is grounded in a long process of collection of facts and perspectives from numerous sources.

While one easy distinguishing mark between superficial and deep preparedness lies in the time dedicated to preparation (with deep preparedness being more time-intensive), another important indicator is whether the knowledge we employ for the writing is conscious or subconscious. If we can grasps all the knowledge we require for the writing in our conscious mind (e.g. I will need to write about point A, B, C, …), we have most likely achieved only a superficial form of preparedness. If, in contrast, we have garnered so much knowledge about a topic that we cannot clearly understand the whole scale of our knowledge on the subject, we have more likely achieved a deeper form of preparedness. This preparedness enables us to write beyond our conscious plan of what we want to write. New twists and perspectives seem like they pop out of nowhere into our mind. However, they do not appear out of nothing but have grown from the extensive base of our knowledge on the subject.

Preparedness of style is a less obvious and more difficult to grasp form of preparedness. Preparedness of style assures that we have the technical skill to materialize our thoughts into well-formed words. Words, in particular, which meet the expectations of the specific type of writing we are engaged in.

As the most drastic example for preparedness of style think of mastery of language. If I never learnt a word of French in my life, I will not be able to produce even a simple shopping list written in French. However, I might well be able to do so, if I have taken some French classes and brushed up my vocabulary with a few words. My preparedness of style has increased, but would yet be insufficient to produce an essay for a French periodical.

While mastery of language is certainly an important dimension of preparedness of style, there are other, more subtle, yet possibly more practically relevant dimensions of this preparedness. The most important of these being the mastery of a particular writing style. Writing styles usually correlate with the type of output we seek to produce. For instance, the style of writing for a newspaper is quite different of the style of writing for an academic business journal, which will yet be different from writing a book about a new programming language.

The more we become familiar with a particular writing style, the more subtle differences will we be able to spot. There is, for instance, not just one style of writing for a newspaper, but one can distinguish slightly different writing styles for instance between The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

While preparedness of knowledge is certainly not easy to achieve, preparedness of style poses even greater challenges. While there are some style guides for languages or even for particular publications, what exactly makes up a ‘style’ is difficult to formalize; and therewith difficult to learn through traditional means.

Really the only way available is through practice; ideally with the help of a seasoned master of the style. This, for instance, is the supposed model to convey the style of academic writing, where the doctoral or master student is gently guided by a supervisor to pick up the tricks of the trade. However, given that no master craftsman is available and even if there is, it is required to learn by practicing; for instance, by critically examining the outputs one produces and matching them against one’s own ‘feeling’ of how well the writing matches with the style of the discipline.

Both preparedness of knowledge and preparedness of style are no qualities, which can be achieved in absolutes. Even the most knowledgeable expert or the most seasoned writing professional, will be able to find ways to improve their preparedness of knowledge and/or style. Try to reach the minimal level for both levels of preparedness after which you feel able to produce some coherent output. The output must not be great, not even be good. It really doesn’t matter. What matters is that you do what you want to learn. This is always the best form of practice, and in lucky circumstances even leaves you with respectable outputs for whichever goal you seek to achieve.

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