How Writing Is Like A Black Belt Test

I’m in the midst of a new project, and the main character is a 12-year-old girl about to take her black belt test. Earlier this week I got to the scene in the book where this momentous event takes place. Since the most martial arts I’ve done is a self-defense class, I turned to an expert–my mom. That’s right. My mom is a fourth degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. She could totally kill you with her bare hands, so don’t mess with me :). That’s her below.

Anyway, as she described the test to me, I kept thinking about how it applied to writing, aside from the whole your-body-is-a-lethal-machine thing.

At the beginning of the test, they say to the candidates: “You’re going to get tired. You’ll get so tired your brain will tell you, ‘I can’t do this.’ When that happens, you say, ‘I can do this. I have prepared, I am ready, and I will earn this.'” 

As writers, we could use a similar pep talk when we decide to pursue publication. Something like this: “You’re going to think you’ll never get published. You’ll be filled with self-doubt and think you can’t do it anymore. But if you keep working hard, build up your skills, and persevere, it will pay off.” Now when I say it will pay off, I don’t mean right away. It takes time. Martial artists work for years to reach that black belt, and you’ll work for years to be published. Even if you’re one of those people whose first query lands an agent, you’ll still have to put in the work and wait for the finished product.

After the pep talk, the candidates start with what they learned first–stances, kicks and punches. They do them over and over. As writers, we have to build up our skills. We start with the easy part–coming up with an idea or a character–and then layer on the technique. It took me a while to understand this part. I knew I was a good writer. I did it for a living, but writing a novel is not the same as writing news releases and website copy and magazine articles. You have to learn how to write dialog, how to pace your story, how to show instead of tell. You can’t move up to the next level of difficulty until you’ve mastered the basics. At the same time, you need to keep those basics in shape, too.

Then next part of the test surprised me–an oral section. They ask the candidates why they want to be a black belt and then remind them it’s the beginning of learning, not the end. What an interesting statement and so true for writers. No matter where you are on your publishing journey, there’s always a next step. Agent. Publisher. The next project. You keep learning and improving. If you don’t improve, you might move back a step. Who wants to stay at the status quo, anyway? I, for one, want to move forward.

The final part of the test is sparring, first one-on-one and then four or five-to-one depending on the age of the candidate. I went to watch this part when my mom tested, and it was grueling. After six hours of kicks and punches and forms, you’re expected to stay on your feet and fight off multiple attackers. It’s not about taking them down–that rarely happens. It’s about perseverance. It’s about showing you’re in control of your body.

As writers, we’re going to feel beaten down. Agents will reject us. Editors will reject us. Readers will give us bad reviews. The point is to keep writing, to persevere no matter how under attack we feel, to show we’re in control.

So what do I take away? Put in the work. Learn the basics, then keep on learning. And most of all, don’t give up!

Responses to “How Writing Is Like A Black Belt Test”

  1. Mom

    Thanks for talking about and applying something so dear to me to something so dear to you. I have faith in you. Someday we WILL see your name on book covers and others will be able to enjoy your stories as much as I do.

  2. Michael Gettel-Gilmartin

    I’ve been mulling doing a post on writing/martial arts (my son used to do mixed martial arts) but you beat me to it–and also did a better job than I could have done! (I like what your mom has to say about you… perseverance is key.)


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