The Skill List Project

I recently re-read Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life.  It’s one of a set of books I read every now and then to raise my sights and make me more ambitious in my work; although Tharp is a choreographer, the book is a great source of inspiration for writers and for anyone else who wants to keep the creative juices flowing.

One of Tharp’s many pieces of advice is to analyze your own skill set.  What are your strengths and weaknesses?  What do you rely on too heavily?  Where are you lagging and how do you elevate your game?

This got me thinking: what are the skills involved in writing and selling fiction (particularly science fiction and fantasy)?  Is it possible to make a list?  And whether or not it’s possible, am I impulsive enough to try?

Well, heck, why not?

A Definitive List of Writing Skills?

So here’s the project I’m going to embark on in this blog over the coming months.  Starting with my own ideas, and drawing on the expertise of SFNovelists members and readers, I’ll take a crack at listing the skills that an sf writer should develop.

Let me lay down some ground rules:

  • I want to be fairly specific.  For example, I don’t just want to say, Must be able to write good dialogue.  What specific skills are involved in writing dialogue?  I’m thinking of everything from punctuating correctly (which seems to go over a lot of newbies’ heads) to actually listening to how people speak, from tailoring speech for individual characters to writing good “frames” around the dialogue (e.g. avoiding said-bookisms).  Let’s spell things out as best we can.
  • I want to suggest (or solicit) practical ways to improve these skills.  Sometimes this will be easy.  (There are lots of good books on punctuation; buy one and do what it says.)  Sometimes this will be hard: tailoring speech to individual characters isn’t just a matter of developing a good ear; it’s bound up with all the artistic mysteries of characterization.  Still, let’s see if we can come up with useful help for those of us who want to keep getting better.
  • I’ll always use the word “skill” rather than “talent” or “trait.”  This reflects my belief that writing abilities are learnable, not innate gifts that you have or you haven’t.  Cognitive psychology has been studying expert performance for decades, and has found little evidence for inborn talent.  Instead, the people who do best in any field—from chess to sports, science, or music—are those who work hardest and smartest at getting good.  We don’t need “gifts” to succeed; we can always improve with the right kind of practice.
  • I recognize that certain skills are valued by some writers and not by others.  For example, I love first-person viewpoint, especially when the narrator has a quirky tone of voice; I will definitely put that on my list of desirable skills.  However, I’ve heard some writers call first-person “outdated” and “immature,” and I’ve heard readers say they want prose to be “as clear as glass,” with no “personality” intruding into “plain” descriptions.  Fair enough… but since I’m aiming for the most complete list possible, I’d like to include skills that are valued by a significant percentage of writers/readers, even if those skills aren’t universally admired.  (Hey, sf is a big genre—some people love when a book goes on for pages about a particular subject, while other people hate it.  Whichever way our preferences lie, we may still be able to learn something valuable by looking at the skills involved.)
  • I’d like us to chew on one area at a time.  For example, in response to this particular blog entry, I don’t think it will be useful if commenters immediately try to make their own comprehensive lists of skills.  Let’s keep our focus narrow, at least for the time being; let’s try for a little depth rather than broad shallow splats.

The Most Important Skill

So to kick off the discussion, here’s a question for commenters: What skill would you put at the top of the list?  What’s the most important skill for a writer to have or develop?

Several answers leap to mind: discipline… curiosity… ambition… honesty… and of course, the ability to read voraciously.  These are all crucial, but for the sake of discussion, let me offer something a little more unexpected.  An sf writer must develop the capacity to respect and believe in imaginary things.

Look… we’re writing fiction.  The people we’re writing about don’t exist.  Our settings may also be fictitious.  The events we describe may even be physically impossible.  Yet we have to buy into them completely, or our stories will be dead on the page.  If we don’t have belief and respect for what we’re doing, no other skill can compensate.

It’s a trick of doublethink: we know our characters aren’t real, and yet we have to feel they are.  We must do our best to be true to them and portray them honestly.  The same principle applies to the settings and events we deal with.

So how do we develop the ability to believe deeply in what’s not real?  I suspect most of us have that skill already—if you’re reading a blog on, you’re probably drawn to sf and therefore to “unreal” things.  Like Mulder, you want to believe.

But there are still ways to improve your connection with fictitious people, places, and things.  How?  This trick of doublethink is something actors do all the time: they have to invest themselves emotionally in the realness of their characters, while simultaneously reciting prepackaged speeches on an obviously artificial theater or movie set.

How do actors do this?  To learn their techniques, why not read some books on acting, or even better, try some acting yourself?  For reading, a good starting point might be A Practical Handbook for the Actor.  However, there are plenty of acting-advice books out there; go to your library and see what you find.

To Infinity and Beyond

I now turn the floor over to you in the comments section: what do you think is the single most important skill for an sf writer?  Let’s talk about that for a while, and next time we’ll move on to the lowest-level basics—vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation.  (Ooo, I’m excited already!)

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  1. 1. SMD

    What do you call determination mixed with the ability to learn from mistakes? I think that’s an important skill. You can’t give up and you have to be able to learn to improve. Together. In one convenient package.

  2. 2. Asterisk

    Reading voraciously is good, but reading as a writer is even better, and that same critical reading of a wide range of books is best of all. I think a lot of new writers tend to stick to reading their genre of choice with a few dalliances elsewhere.

    Read a Sentimental Education and Moby Dick. Read the Dubliners (over and over again). Read books on reading or how fiction works (Harold Bloom and James Wood both have short, readable treatises on the inner workings of good prose). Being a good writer isn’t just about telling a compelling story, it’s about telling that story well.

    And as to your bit about believing in unreal things: unless you want to focus on non-fiction, all writers are, at heart, making stuff up.

  3. 3. Olivia

    So, in your opinion, a s/f writer must be a little bit insane. :)

  4. 4. Nathanael Green

    Confidence. (… that’ just my opinion ;-) )

    All fiction writers first need to find the courage to put their innermost thoughts and soul-shavings onto a page for others to see. It can be tough to overcome that fear of being judged, of someone seeing deeper than the surface, of not being perfect.

    But specifically for SF writers, and somewhat tied to your point in the post about respecting the imaginary, we have to have the confidence not only of a usual fiction writer, but especially that our visions are valid and just as worthy as literary fiction.

    As a side note about your project in general (which I love), have you read Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin? It sounds like you have, but if you haven’t, I highly recommend it. It’s got great research about how exceptional people perform so well and if for nothing else, it’s worth it to read about how Benjamin Franklin created exercises to strengthen specific writing skills.

  5. 5. Mary

    Of course the real problem is that you have to have a certain amount of skill to judge your own deficiencies in skill. . . .

  6. 6. Harry Markov


    Patience to go through the countless rounds of edits, until all seems to fit.

    Patience to sit through the long waits in between submissions.

    Patience to just accept the rejections and await publication at a later date.

    Patience to develop all other technical skills that are involved in the actual writing.

    As far as actual writing goes, I will be unpopular by saying that having a contortionist’s control over prose is vital. I just like to see stories dressed accordingly.

  7. 7. Wolf Lahti

    Hmm. I’m about equally balance between Perseverance and Self-awareness. Perseverance won’t get you anyway if you don’t have the ability to see where you are lacking and thereby find how to improve, but of course you won’t get anywhere no matter how good you are without Perseverance.

  8. 8. Donald Burks

    Imagination. Alexander Pope famously said that Homer’s very finest quality was invention, an older term for imagination. The very hardest thing any of us does is to imagine what another person experiences, and then put it into words. The most powerful books in any genre make us feel what it is like to be in a strangers mind and body.

  9. 9. David

    Discipline. Above all. I’ve tried to carve discipline into my life for more than 50 years. I’ll occasionally make the cut – write an hour a day for a week or so. Once, I managed nearly 2,000 words a day for NaNoWriMo. But eventually, I make excuses. Discipline fails. The great novel I want to write stays inside my head. Healed over once again.

    Discipline above all.

  10. 10. Mark Oetjens

    The Skills List Project is an extremely interesting and hopefully valuable endeavor.

    I’ve only read the 1st post but I’ll definitely be reading more. I say the most important skill is discipline. I try to write every day, whether I want to or not.


  1. The Skill List Project: Vocabulary at SF Novelists
  2. The Skill List Project: Learning to Love Grammar at SF Novelists
  3. The Skill List Project: Punctuation and its Discontents at SF Novelists
  4. The Skill List Project: Reading Voraciously at SF Novelists
  5. The Skill List Project: Reading Judiciously at SF Novelists
  6. The Skill List Project: Reading Analytically at SF Novelists
  7. The Skill List Project: Viewpoint and Story Experience at SF Novelists
  8. The Skill List Project: Viewpoint Selectivity at SF Novelists
  9. The Skill List Project: Avoiding Viewpoint Mistakes at SF Novelists
  10. The Skill List Project: The Raconteur Viewpoint at SF Novelists
  11. The Skills List Project: Plot Units at SF Novelists
  12. The Skill List Project: Starting to Plot at SF Novelists
  13. The Skill List Project: Plot Flow at SF Novelists
  14. The Skill List Project: Scene Design at SF Novelists
  15. The Skill List Project: Scene Beginnings and Endings at SF Novelists
  16. The Skill List Project: Writing Descriptive Passages at SF Novelists
  17. The Skill List Project: Word Choice and Wordspace at SF Novelists
  18. The Skill List Project: Fight Scene Basics at SF Novelists
  19. The Skill List Project: Fight Pacing at SF Novelists
  20. The Skill List Project: Dialogue Preliminaries at SF Novelists
  21. The Skill List Project: Dialogue Purpose at SF Novelists
  22. The “Skill List Project” for fiction writers | thoughtsignals
  23. The Skill List Project: Dialogue Attribution at SF Novelists
  24. The Skill List Project: Characterization Skills and Sources at SF Novelists
  25. The Skill List Project: Characterization Tools at SF Novelists
  26. The Skill List Project: Character Motivation at SF Novelists
  27. The Skill List Project: Theme at SF Novelists
  28. The Skill List Project: Symbolism Preliminaries at SF Novelists
  29. The Skill List Project: Imagery at SF Novelists
  30. The Skill List Project: World-Building Preliminaries at SF Novelists
  31. The Skill List Project: World-Building Specifics at SF Novelists
  32. The Skill List Project: Exposition Preliminaries at SF Novelists
  33. The Skill List Project: Exposition Execution at SF Novelists
  34. The Skill List Project: Cause and Effect at SF Novelists
  35. The Skill List Project: Research at SF Novelists
  36. The Skill List Project: Discipline at SF Novelists
  37. The Skill List Project: Comedy at SF Novelists
  38. The Skill List Project: SF Conventions at SF Novelists
  39. The Skill List Project: Professionalism at SF Novelists
  40. The Skill List Project: Diction at SF Novelists
  41. The Skill List Project: Rewriting at SF Novelists
  42. The Skill List Project: Comfort in Your Own Skin at SF Novelists
  43. The Skill List Project: Index at SF Novelists

Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.



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