As writers, we have to keep learning. It is fundamental to what we do for a living. Sometimes, we stumble onto something new and learn it on the fly. At other times, we choose a topic and settle down to learn it. In other words, we set a learning goal. The task may seem overwhelming at first, but like most things writers do, the process can be broken down into a manageable system. This one has six steps.
Everything new in life begins with an idea. Ideas change the world. Think Steve Jobs, whose ideas launched a technological revolution. Even if you aren’t a Mac addict, which I happen to be, chances are you own an iPad, an iPod, or an iPhone. A great idea is only the first step; it’s what you do with the idea that counts. You have to decide to convert your idea into a goal, preferably a SMART goal—specific, measurable, agreed upon, realistic, and time-bound. An idea, powerful as it may be, is amorphous; a goal is tangible.
Once you decide to act on your idea, you begin to change. At first, this may be only a subtle shift, but over time, it becomes a true transformation. The power of a decision is remarkable. Your idea fills your thoughts; it focuses your attention; it finds its way into your conversations. Most of all, it excites you. When you talk to others about your plans, they sense a new spark in you. Often, they will mention how animated you are. This is definitely a sign that you are on the right track.
Of course, there is going to be a lot to learn and many ways to learn it, such as interviewing experts on your subject, talking to a reference librarian, surfing the Internet, taking a course, reading articles and books, consulting government publications, and more. Exploring your topic could be an end it itself, though in this case, it is a means to an end: that of becoming an expert in your own right.
While gathering information can be fun as well as rewarding, to be of any real value, research must move you toward your goal. Discovering what works and what doesn’t is like conducting a huge experiment. Some information furthers your learning; some is merely superfluous. No knowledge is ever wasted, but only you can determine whether you need it or not. If you don’t, file it “for future reference,” and move on. Don’t be seduced by expert sources. Keep your eye on the prize: what you want to learn.
Up to this point you could say, “Well, this has been fun, but I don’t want to continue,” and abandon the effort. All you have actually done is explore and experiment a bit. Perhaps you have discovered you don’t want to learn about this subject after all, or it is just too complicated to pursue, or any of a dozen other reasons to move on. That’s fine. You haven’t signed a contract; you can stop any time you want to. On the other hand, let’s say your curiosity is aroused and you are more enthusiastic than ever. If that’s the case, it is time to commit to your learning goal. Once you have made that commitment, there will be no stopping the momentum from building. Like rolling a snowball down a mountain, you have the beginning of an intellectual avalanche.
At this point, learning becomes an adventure. The more of your subject you master, the more you want to know. Research becomes fun. Facts build on one another. Patterns emerge. When you start, you are a novice; as you proceed, you become more knowledgeable. Eventually, you may even become an expert. Even if you do achieve “expert status,” you will continue to explore and experiment. The important thing about learning is that it never ends. It is, in fact, addictive.
For writers, learning comes with the territory, and for most of us, it is gratifying and even fun. It is a myth to think that everything we write just pours out of our own minds. Information is everywhere; in fact, information overload is a common problem. The challenge is in choosing from all the possibilities of what we want to learn and then going through the step-by-step process that will take us from curiosity to contentment.