Yesterday, I launched my newly branded website at RandyHeller.com. As part of this rebranding, I formally embraced a title I’ve been using in my headline on LinkedIn for the past couple of weeks: Master Writer.
Since this isn’t a term that’s commonly (if ever) used, it has prompted some people to ask, “What the heck is a Master Writer?”
So while I had planned to wrap up my 3-part series on “Effective Website Messaging” this week, I’ve decided instead to take some time to discuss what this title means, at least to me, and why I chose it.
The first and most obvious answer is that I am, literally, a Master of Writing. Which is to say, I not only have a Bachelor’s but a Master’s degree in that subject. For both, I studied under some amazing teachers, writers, and poets at the State University of New York in Binghamton more than 20 years ago.
That’s not where this story begins, though. It begins with me being a voracious reader at a very early age. I clocked an inordinate number of hours at our town’s local library, which was the second floor of an old stone Victorian that also housed City Hall and the police department. Most of the books in it were older than me, so it always had that wonderfully musty smell of rotting paper.
During my formative years, I consumed hundreds of books while sitting on the floor at the end of one particular row of shelves, under a tall window, bathed in a beam of dust-filled sunlight. My tastes were very democratic. On any given day, I might be reading fiction or nonfiction, literary classics or pulp novels, fantasy or mystery, science or history, or how-to books about everything from drawing to playing chess to magic tricks to building a rocket.
One could say that my writing apprenticeship started in that little library.
Which brings us to the second meaning of being a Master Writer. “Master” as in the sense of a master craftsman. In medieval times, under the European guild system, people (okay men) in certain craft-based professions would start as apprentices, then become journeymenafter a period of reading, classroom work, and on-the-job training. As journeymen, they could then work under a master, earn money, and accrue enough experience to become masters and work for themselves.
Here in the United States, as in other countries, we still see the remnants of this system in trades such as carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work. That’s why it’s not uncommon to hear somebody referred to as a Master Carpenter, Master Plumber, or Master Electrician. It’s even possible, through a series of tests, to become a Master Mixologist in the eyes of the U.S. Bartenders Guild.
For me, writing is no less a craft than plumbing or carpentry. Yes, it is also an art. Tons of creativity goes into writing powerfully, even when one isn’t creating poetry or spinning fictional tales. Inspired word and phrasing choices, hypnotic rhythms, and the clever use of metaphor can make even a boring essay about a topic like “potholes in Idaho” seem artistic.
Art aside, though, without a strong foundation in the rules of writing, it’s difficult to become an accomplished or even a professional writer. That’s where the craft comes in. Pablo Picasso is often credited as saying, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” Maybe he said this and maybe he didn’t, but the notion itself is a well-established one.
So again, with this in mind, one could say my apprenticeship started on the floor of that library, reading all of those books. It continued when I was exposed to even more books and the rules of proper grammar and structure from English teachers in high school. Then I started writing my own stories. Then, as a freshman in college, I took my first creative writing class, and felt the rush of other students clapping after I spent half an hour reading one of my stories out loud. Then, after several false starts, I landed in that writing program and earned my Bachelor’s degree, acing every term paper along the way.
At that point, using the guild structure, I’d say my apprentice stage ended and I became a journeyman. Because I entered grad school the very next year, and while earning a full stipend, I not only had the opportunity to learn under some brilliant writer/professors over a period of two years, but also serve as a teacher myself.
I spent the first half of grad school working in the university’s writing center, mostly helping English as a Second Language students fine tune their term papers. To be honest, it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to be doing, which was teaching in a classroom. But in hindsight, I’m glad for the experience, because it forced me to deconstruct everything I knew instinctively about the process of writing.
During the fall of my second year of grad school, I served as a teaching assistant for a freshman literature class. If you were ever a freshman once, you know what this looks like. I taught reluctant incoming students how to understand literature and to write their first ever college-level term papers. Which, as with working in the writing center, proved to be as much of a learning experience for me as for them.
Then, during my final semester, I got the chance to do something I’d been wanting to do for a decade. Ever since my own freshman year. Teach a “Creative Writing 101” class. In fact, I was so excited about the opportunity that I accepted twice as many unregistered students as I should have. Which meant I had to bend the rules a bit and create a second (unpaid) class on a different day and find an empty classroom for it.
Teaching those two writing classes, while also completing the book that was my master’s thesis (what the old European guild system would call my masterpiece), was one of the most thrilling times in my life. On a daily basis, I was both preaching and practicing the craft of the thing I loved most–writing–while also socializing (and often kvetching) with other graduate writing students doing the same.
At the end of it all, I walked away with a diploma that said I was a Master of Writing. But on some level, I knew I really wasn’t yet. Two years wasn’t enough. Helping kids write term papers and short stories and poems wasn’t enough.
After this, for reasons discussed in another article, I started myself on a web development and coding track that took me away from writing in any kind of full-time capacity. Of course, I’ve always written for myself, whether it be short stories, personal essays, or any one of dozens upon dozens of chapters of various unfinished novels. I’ve even proofed and edited books for other people.
But it’s hardly been the life of a professor or career author, wearing corduroy jackets and smoking a pipe, that I had once envisioned for myself.
As I moved through my career, though, a curious thing happened. Although I was ostensibly a “web guy,” I always found myself looking for ways to fit writing into my job. I wrote and edited client text copy for websites, as well as for thousands of promotional emails. I wrote detailed how-to instructional manuals for coworkers. I wrote white papers while working for one company and edited sponsored white papers while working for another. I wrote epic proposals and analyses and project plans and endless pages of internal documentation.
You name it, I wrote it. Whether anybody asked me to or not.
Then, late last year, I rediscovered LinkedIn, and started writing weekly articles. Not quite for professional reasons at first, but because I wanted to. After all, at that time, I still thought of myself primarily as a “digital solutions” provider. And while I certainly considered copywriting to be a part of that–one I enjoyed and was good at–I didn’t consider it a very big part. So the articles were more an outlet than a career strategy. A way to share my thoughts with the community I was getting to know.
But then the more articles I wrote, the more my point of view about why I was doing it started to evolve. Because the hours I spent writing were the best time of my week, and the ones I spent teaching myself new programming languages, researching the best PHP framework, and keeping up with the latest CSS3 tricks was the worst.
Also, people seemed to genuinely like and respond well to my articles. I was teaching them things in what they found to be an entertaining way, and in the process of doing that, discovered that I knew and could express far more about these subjects than I had originally given myself credit for.
In other words, at some point during the 20+ years since grad school, I actually became a “Master Writer” not just by diploma, but through experience as well.
Like any good journeyman, over those years, I have accumulated a set of tools by working my way through a wide variety of writing types: narrative, descriptive, expository, persuasive, technical, creative, functional, instructional, long-form, short-form, articles, blog posts, tweets, subject lines, you name it. And don’t get me started on internal emails. Or LinkedIn comments. Or letters to the editor (remember those?).
To make a long story short (too late?), I have more than put in my hours and days and years. Decades even. My word count alone during that time speaks for itself. By all accounts, I have achieved expertise. I have mastered my craft.
So that’s what the heck a Master Writer is.
And that’s why I am one.
Want to know how more effective digital messaging and original content can help your business stand out, help you better engage with your customers, and improve your bottom line? Then drop me a line here or connect with me on LinkedIn and let’s have conversation about it.