You Are Either Ignorant or Inept, Until You’re Not

Please, I hope you don’t take the subject the wrong way. I’m using the royal “you.”

In The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande believes we fail to achieve complex goals in life for two primary reasons:

The first is ignorance – we may err because science has given us only a partial understanding of the world and how it works. There are skyscrapers we do not yet know how to build, snowstorms we cannot predict, heart attacks we still haven’t learned how to stop.


The second type of failure the philosophers call ineptitude – because in these instances the knowledge exists, yet we fail to apply it correctly. This is the skyscraper that is built wrong and collapses, the snowstorm whose signs the meteorologist just plain missed, the stab wound from a weapon the doctors forgot to ask about.

As a writer, I started off ignorant. I loved reading books, much like I enjoyed playing video games, but I couldn’t tell you how they worked.

And so I bought a bunch of craft books. I tried to read stories with a more critical eye.

Good! After several months of study, I shed my ignorance! So now I should have been able to write an instant best-seller.

Well, the first book attempt didn’t quite work out that way. Nor the second. Nor the third. Obviously, I was still ignorant. I just needed to read more craft books and it would all sink in. But after an embarrassing amount of additions to my learning library (don’t think I’ve stopped adding to the shelves, either), I realized most of them were starting to repeat the others.

Okay. So I had a good idea of how stories worked, but how could I apply that knowledge to my work?

A revelation.

I use checklists at work. A lot. I use them because there are way too many important variables to try and remember when I’m implementing a new system or putting together documentation.

Why not use one for writing? Theme? Check. Flawed protagonist? Check. Ally dies in Act 3? Check. Boy, doesn’t that just sound like the most inspiring, non-robotic thing ever? (Yes, I can hear you snickering.)

I tried it.

Over and over.

And I never finished one of those stories because I was bored to death. My writing was more wooden than a Spanish galleon.

The lesson?

Checklists are useful, but they are context-dependent. Writing isn’t brain surgery in the sense that no one is going to die if you leave one of those boxes unchecked. You don’t want to put in a theme? Don’t. Some will be disappointed. Others will love that you’re not preaching at them.

Where am I going with all of this?

Writing can be complex. A checklist is like a security blanket for my INTJ-leaning mind. It ensures I cover all of the required points.

Do you see what’s wrong with that last sentence?

Who’s to say what’s required in a story? Well, everyone. But that’s the kink in the hose. Everyone has different requirements (AKA, tastes). It’s cliche, but true: You can’t please everyone.

So what to do?

I’m thinking the best thing I can do is write for myself and hope someone likes the same things I do.

And keep writing until I’m no longer inept.


4 thoughts on “You Are Either Ignorant or Inept, Until You’re Not

  1. It’s kind of like the outline vs. improvise debate, and I find that it can be different for each book or story. Sometimes things flow naturally without a lot of outlining or checklisting, but other times I find I need a road map or I’ll get lost.

    BTW, you’re in no way inept, dude!

    1. Glad you chimed in, Kevin. It’s always nice to hear from someone with a lot of experience on the matter! I think you’re right…seem to be certain pieces are already written and just need to be copied to the page. Others are just nagging little inferences that need to be fleshed out some more.

  2. This here: “I’m thinking the best thing I can do is write for myself and hope someone likes the same things I do.” Frankly, that’s the best approach anyone can take. But, as you and Kevin note, it whether you outline or use a checklist, depends on the story you’re trying to tell.

    1. This is definitely sinking in as I learn more. Thanks for the comment, Marie!

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