How to Master the Craft of Writing

illustration of sherlock holmes by sidney paget

Sherlock Holmes was the greatest Consulting Detective in the world.

Though merely a fiction, written over a century ago by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, his methods of logical deduction are without equal.

Holmes’ mastery of his craft brought him to the fog-cloaked London doorsteps of the most powerful people of his time.

Correction: those clients came to him.

They ran, desperate, to his Baker Street rooms, begging for his help, willing to pay any amount he requested in return for his services.

What can Sherlock Holmes teach us about mastery?

Everything.

I’ll let you find the wealth of anecdote, advice, and adventure in Conan Doyle’s stories yourself, but here’s a short beginning list on Holmesian mastery to get you started …

Make a decision

When you watch an interview with a brilliant and successful writer, something happens deep in your gut.

From somewhere down there you think, “Ah yes, our lot is sealed from birth. Some are chosen to create brilliant work, and the rest of us are screwed.”

What you conveniently dismiss from such interviews is the telling of the hours, days, weeks, months, and years of deliberate practice that the writer has put in.

Somewhere, a decision was made.

On a particular day, at a particular hour, the writer had said, “This is the thing I will dedicate my working life to.”

Sometimes — as in Holmes’ case — there are obvious hints regarding what that “thing” is. Most times, there are none.

The first step on the road of mastery is to make a conscious decision about what you will decide to master.

Do not wait for it. Decide.

Focus, focus, focus

Our society tells us from a young age that to become a “well-rounded” individual is wise and good.

If you want to master your craft, ignore this advice.

Sherlock Holmes focused intensely on a narrow set of criminological skills and subjects that ultimately made him an incomparable detective.

He studied specific disciplines within botany and chemistry — only to the point that they served his needs as a detective.

He learned the science of cryptography in order to swiftly crack the codes of master criminal communication.

He became competent enough in human anatomy to forge the early stages of what would become forensic analysis in murder investigations.

He would lie down napping and thinking for hours about one minute aspect of a case, not moving until an idea — sometimes a complete solution — came to him.

Think deeply about the core demands of your craft.

What is needed to advance in mastery of it?

What can be ignored as mere distraction?

Practice brutal focus.

Our fictional detective’s methods are studied even now by very real, working detectives everywhere, because he had the discipline to stay within the arena of his expertise.

Note: for those familiar with Holmes’ methods — no, I am not advocating the use of morphine and cocaine.

Become an idiot

Idiocy is the other side of the coin of mastery.

In order to focus your working life on mastering your craft, you’ve got to rule out a lot of the trivia that takes up most people’s time.

Sherlock Holmes could determine what part of the city you’d been recently walking through from a quick glance at the mud on your boot.

He was a strikingly horrible violin player (see Sidney Paget’s illustration above).

Within moments of meeting, he could tell you where you were born, what you’d eaten for lunch, if your brother was an alcoholic, and if you’d served in the war.

He knew nothing about current events or the politics of his day.

He could seemingly predict the future, arriving at correct conclusions that left witnesses believing he was an other-worldly being.

He was utterly oblivious to the basic astronomical patterns of the stars and planets.

Holmes accomplished his amazing ability to see the obvious by … becoming an idiot.

Holmes’ greatness — and ours — is largely defined by what we do not know.

He had one driving professional goal — to engage and best the greatest (and lowest) criminals in the world. He shut out the rest, and he did not care that anyone thought him less than “well-rounded.”

All of his considerable mental power was directed at the “elementary” practice of deduction, and the few peripheral disciplines that supported it.

Distraction pulls us in all directions

The boredom of repetition drives us to other interests. The pressures of culture make us worry we are missing out on something “important” by dedicating ourselves to our pursuit of mastery.

Stop.

If you want to master writing, you are probably giving up running the 800 meters in the Olympic Games.

If you want to master the cello, you are probably giving up the ability to talk about what’s good on television these days.

If you want to master anything, you must become an idiot in nearly everything else.

You must become an idiot to become a genius.

Continue to obsess

This path of mastery is not for everyone, but I believe it is one of the great callings and joys this life has to offer.

You’ll never get all the way there … nobody does.

But do not despair, the meaning comes from the making. And it’s a much more pleasurable way to live than by doing just enough to get by.

There is only so much time in one day, and only so many days in one life.

As our immortal Victorian detective (and the extraordinary man who wrote him into existence) has shown, mastery is one way to truly change the world.

Choose. Focus. Become an idiot.

About the Author: Robert Bruce is Copyblogger Media’s Chief Copywriter and Resident Recluse.

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Comments

  1. Hi Robert
    I really enjoyed this post. Practice brutal focus really hits home, so true. I love the idocy and mastery concept. You can’t be a master at writing if you are up to date with every rubbish reality show on tv.
    Personally, I think being well-rounded is seriously overrated.
    Thanks again for the post.
    Cheers
    Thea

  2. I love the emphasis on obsession. The vast majority of people have to choose the following: either be close to average or obsess. Those who aren’t willing to trade a huge amount of time and effort very rarely end up the “master” of anything.

  3. The idea of ignoring advice to become a “well-rounded individual” and “becoming an idiot” instead is a tough pill to swallow – but it’s also completely correct if you want to master anything.

    You’d probably find that focusing on very specific skills and projects is exactly how good athletes became super-star athletes, musicians became legendary, business people got rich…etc.

    It’s difficult though, because sometime it feels like you have to know a little bit about everything to function in society. Or at least to do well on Jeopardy!

  4. Powerful points,i like the part about making a decision and being focused/obessed.just like saying the power to succeed is in your hands u can if you try!!!!

  5. I think one more option could do here i.e. writing with passion. I personally believe passion can make you do things you would have not tried in normal circumstances and plays a far important role in the ultimate success achieved

  6. Robert – Great article. Your points remind me a lot of Steven Pressfield’s War of Art on how important it is to tackle writing (in this case) as a pursuit for excellence instead of simply assuming that some people are born with an innate gift while others are screwed. Sure, some people are born naturally skilled, but I imagine that by and large, the people working as writers today got their by hard work and discipline.

    Thanks for sharing!

  7. Yes, it really DOES take brutal focus!

    Thanks for the fabulous post. =)

    – Jennifer

  8. I loved reading this :) focus, obsession and getting on with = results. I like how his single mindedness is a strength and not made into a weakness. Too many of us make our strengths into sticks to beat ourselves with.

  9. Robert this is brilliant! I’m not a writer, but such a “jack of all trades and master of none”.
    I’ve been a full time mother, social worker, business management consultant, wildlife activist and the list goes on. However, about two years ago I made that decision… I was going to help save Africa’s wildlife.
    But…. because I’m “the most passionate unfocused person I’ve met” (a career counselor told me during one of my midlife crises) it remains a struggle for me to do so… stay focused.
    Thanks again for this brilliant insight and advice.

  10. Robert – just a great post. Brilliant use of someone we all know to show us how to be better. And the singular focus to become great at something is not what the world teaches…to everyone’s detriment.
    cheers brother.

  11. Great post – comforting to acknowledge my idiocy serves a purpose! Love the point about Holmes obliviousness to current politics and “news of the day” which provide a barrage of distractions. How easy it is to drift into reacting to what’s going on in the world instead of focusing our energy on what we’re here to do, directing our mind and not following others. Have loved Doyle and Holmes since I read Hound of the Baskervilles at age 10.

  12. I really enjoyed reading this. It’s so easy to let ourselves be distracted from the things that are really important to us because it’s too difficult to master. Learning to shut out the rest of the world and focusing on one thing is such an important skill, not only in writing, but also in life. Thanks for the post!

  13. Excellent post! I tend to be a pretty focused person but, it’s so easy as a marketer in these times of social media to get distracted! Now, more than ever, it’s really important to know your passion, combine it with your strengths and focus on results… Thanks for the reminder!

  14. Oh yes, that is the problem that I face the most everytime, the inability to be focus. It seems like I have an obsession with quantity. In fact, sometimes I thnk being a blogger has to multi-task. To learn web design, writing, and even photography, depending on the niche and the amount of start-up fund present. With the way society are, I have to admit it is hard to commit the whole time to one craft. However, I’m still can’t escape the brutal fact of playing the idiot of life.

    Overall, I think it is a great advise!

  15. Robert,

    Therein lies the rub. “If you want to master anything, you must become an idiot in nearly everything else.” I like a lot of what’s in the world. I tell myself that, “…variety is the spice of life.”

    But then, I’ve ended up being quite the “Jack of all trades, master of none.” Totally lacked that “master” aspect.

    I really didn’t start this comment with the intent of going cliche/quote crazy, but I think that you really hit the nail on the head (oh crap, somebody stop me, please!) with the I’m-all-in aspect. That takes uncommon courage to do that at times. I think that fear (of failure for the most part) can really drive the avoidance of putting all my eggs in one bas …. Good grief.

  16. To read this article just a day after I decided to share my “precious pearl principle” book with the world is for me, serendipitous, and a confirmation that my instincts regarding the importance of information overload and distraction in the digital age is the right one.

    A few years ago, I decide to name my firm “Idea Age Consulting” because I recognized that the central business paradox of the information age IS that technology would BOTH provide more information, AND deny us the most useful information. It could create an avalanche that drowns out Insight.

    That with one hand it would give knowledge, and with the other, it would obscure wisdom.

    Every passing day seems to reinforce the importance of that insight, and this article does so all over again. Here’s are 4 points I want to make about why I loved this article so much:

    1. The Sherlock Holmes metaphor
    Until the moment I read the first paragraph, I had never thought about how well Sherlock Holmes represents both the “master craftsman” and “the obvious expert”. One of the ideas I most often repeat to my clients is that there is a master bricklayer within every master architect. This article so powerfully illustrates this point.

    2.The “Work Smart Not Hard” fallacy
    In the age of digital media and technology, no “false truth” resonates more than the “technology shortcut”, the idea that there is always an “acceleration method” that provides an end-around for old fashioned hard work. Unfortunately for those who believe this myth, the shortcuts are created, recognized and mastered only in the course of pre-requisite hard work.

    This article, much like the main ideas in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” (an excellent book), illustrates this point dramatically.

    3. Strategic Advantage, the strategic approach, and sacrifice
    Strategic advantage is often conferred on those who make the sacrifices required to build long-term advantages into their daily actions. This principle is valid for both individuals and for organizations. However, too often, we try to accomplish “strategy without sacrifice”.
    At best, we end up with a clumsy caricature of what we might have been. At worst, we fail woefully, and learn no lessons from our failure because our failure wasn’t about financing, about visioning, or about process. It was about our inability to accept the need to sacrifice something, for the sake of something else.

    In a poorly run organization it might be the inability to sacrifice many market segments in favor of one, for an under-achieving individual it might be the inability to sacrifice entertainment (or multiple endeavors) in favor of one.
    In your article below, I see the necessary sacrifice for “mastery” and the implied strategic advantage, as the complete idiocy at so many other things, in favor of mastery in this one thing.
    The parable of the “pearl of great price” from the bible describes a merchant man who upon finding the pearl, went and “sold all he had” to purchase the field that contained the pearl.

    4. How do I get and keep my Robert Bruce?
    This article was an elegant display of the mastery you talk about. As a small business owner, I have stayed up nights thinking about how to find and keep my own “Robert Bruce” given limited time and limited resources. I was fortunate enough, 2 years ago to have stumbled my way into associates and partners who I consider to be my own “Robert Bruce(s?)”, but who couldn’t use more on a grand scale?
    I’m jealous of CopyBlogger Media for having Robert Bruce…when I don’t.

    Much like Forrest Gump in the movie Forrest Gump,

    “that’s all I have to say about that”.

    Gogo Erekosima
    Idea Age Consulting

  17. Excellent post using the focused example of Sherlock Holmes and his author. But what a philosophical debate you’ve started as writing genius needs lots of outside input and influences!
    Cheers.

  18. P.S. Your section on Make a Decision . . . Somewhere, a decision was made. On a particular day, at a particular hour . . . Made me think. This past weekend in a Yin yoga class, my yoga teacher said, “Now, if you wish, this is the time to set an intention for your practice today.”

    For the first time, the intention running in my head was, “To be a successful writer. Be a successful writer.”

    And it was a scary one to choose. Now, I’ll have to figure out what that means!

    Thanks again and cheers for such a useful article!

  19. You make it all sound so elementary, my dear Bruce.

    Perhaps one of the most important lessons learned from Sherlock Holmes is that to be effective, we all need a ‘Watson’ to offset our areas of weakness and challenge. Writers need to rely on their peers for feedback, advice and insight. We need to partner with people from whom we can learn and grow. And every once in a while, we need the support of someone prepared to play the fool to our genius! :-) Great post.

  20. Thanks, Robert. This is a great follow up to Sonia’s post about content marketing mastery a few days ago.

    I stopped watching TV quite a while ago. More recently I stopped listening to the radio during my commute – Copyblogger radio (more of that please) and various other podcasts now make my commute so much more interesting. Last weekend I realized I’d even forgotten to check the football results.

    It’s surprising how much you can learn when you think you don’t have the time for it. It only requires a decision to make time. It requires dedication and focus. And now I understand it also requires becoming an idiot. :-)

  21. I love this take on mastering your craft.

    There are many things I’d do throughout the day that I just did because I was so used to doing them. Once I stopped those pointless activities, and really focused my attention elsewhere, such as writing, things became a little more clear.
    I sometimes wonder why I even read the news. I mean, being informed is nice, but why does it matter? I spend a good hour or two reading news when that good hour or two can be reading/writing.
    I rather be an idiot in news than an idiot in writing.

  22. I really like the comparisons in this post. I’ve always had a better read for a well-rounded post, rather than a ‘modern day’ post of all the ‘reality’ that consists this world. It’s more interesting and more to think about.

  23. I loved this post and it is something I am trying to teach my kids. Malcolm Gladwells book Outliers talks about the 10,000 hour rule and I really believe it to be true. Natural talent will only take you so far and after that – its focus.

  24. Aces!

  25. A thought-provoking article. I love variety and pursue many interests in life. You make me realize that if I want to change the world, to make a difference, then I must master my craft, be an idiot to the trivial things in life, be obsessed and dedicated to my craft, and make sacrifice by giving up on other pursuits. Thank you for pointing me in the right direction.

  26. Brilliant! Liberating! Thank you!

  27. I enjoyed the post Robert, Sherlock Holmes is my favourite fictional detective with all his foibles and faults.

    Practice without analysis though is just a waste. You must learn from you’re mistakes otherwise you will continue to make those same mistakes.

  28. I think FOCUS is the best way…

    Thanks, great post :-)

  29. Its amazing how most of us are actually tripped about Sherlock holmes and how real he is to us as a hero,to think that he is just a fiction of someone;s imagination,makes you think deep,this article does that to you.Great post.

  30. I love the Sherlock Holmes stories … and this is a great article by one excellent writer Robert Bruce! But I’m wondering about the writer who gave us Sherlock and Watson …. could Conan Doyle who created such remarkable characters have been a brilliant idiot? I don’t think so.

    Fran

  31. When I was a child, I had a burning desire to speak Russian. It was my great obsession during my whole childhood! I was in love with this language. I wanted to speak it so well, so that native speakers never guess that I am a foreigner. I learnt it. WITHOUT ANY EFFORTS !! Without long hours with the textbooks. I HAVE NEVER L IVED in a Russian speaking country. But now when I speak with Russians, they think that I am Russian and are surprised when find out that I am not.

  32. “Practice brutal focus.” I love that three-word phrase. As a writer, I would add: try to be brutal more to yourself, less to those around you.

  33. Almost 500 years ago, a certain monk nailed his 95 Theses to the door of a church somewhere in Germany. His legacy is not beyond question.

    Robert (the) Bruce has nailed his Master Craftsman thesis to the heart (ouch!) of hyperactive, distracted, no-focus, jack-of-all-trades–master-of-none society.

    Oh that 500 years hence, we could be reincarnated to learn of and be thankful for the master craftsmen who made their decision in 2011 (and later), focused, and became idiots and enriched the whole world with their indisputable legacy.

    Truly, a landmark post! I believe its import extends beyond the art of writing to every area of life. Thank you, Robert!

  34. The constant urge of thinking the grass is always greener on the other side is very distracting, like you say we might feel like we are missing out on something, so we multi task and forget to continue on our ideal path, this post is very deep!! We have our own unique talents, yet no one remembers that anyone!! Thanks for the so not gentle nudge…today I make a decision to fully focus on my craft…word!! :)

  35. Good stuff Rob, I love the emphasis on obsession – so true. It’s impossible to get to the top unless you’re truly passionate and driven to be the best.

  36. Nice Post! Robert…. Sherlock holmes passion was detective and he is in love with passion. Thats why he is so succussful. So if you want to walk on same path as sherlock then make sure that you are in love with your passion.

  37. Bravo Mr Bruce, another sterling piece.

    My heart leapt at such advice as “He would lie down napping and thinking for hours about one minute aspect of a case, not moving until an idea — sometimes a complete solution — came to him.”

    At last, a convincing rationale for my afternoon siesta! It charges up the batteries, invites the day dreaming state and allows your subconscious to wrestle with an angle that one’s ‘reason’ is too rigid to see.

    I must add that your prose has an aura of genius. The more I become more familiar with your work, the more I expect the tingle factor that all great art evokes.

    Thank you, Fin :)

  38. I like the notion of brutal focus and becoming an idiot.
    I’m currently focusing on 3 things in my life. I spent most of my waking hours on those 3 things. Improving. Learning. Successes and failures.
    I definitely recommend the approach of brutal focusing on something for a short term duration. Afterwards, keep it under maintenance. Cut back a little. But still use the skill or else you will lose it.

  39. This is really good insight Robert. Focus is my biggest problem, being constantly pulled in different directions and distracted by other peoples problems is frustrating and counter productive. Writing is an area that I’m working hard at improving and I think you’re absolutely right that focus is the key. Thanks for the tips.

  40. For me it was just doing it. I’ve written over a 1,000 blog posts among my blogs and I can say with certainty my writing is much better. It’s not perfect, but better. I’m more informative, sometimes more entertaining, more succinct, and my research is better (largely based on more experience).

    I find it helpful to read earlier work to see how I’ve progressed and mistakes I’ve made (in order to avoid them in the future). I love writing and do it every day. I think this is a prerequisite.

  41. Love this post, it is brilliant. Reminds me of advice I got from a book I bought off Amazon, which said that sometimes people waste time trying to be well-rounded rather than focus on their skills. I’ve learned that you need to rely on leveraging your strengths rather than compensating for your weaknesses.