Study The Old Masters

Study The Old Masters

THE FIRST TIME I visited our local library I was still in elementary school. The membership card I received came in the form of a credit card— a white coating on the back and the name of the library on top. The plastic card would give me access to our local library and enable me to pick up books all by myself, which was a liberating experience. The pass also perfectly fit into my wallet and so I carried it with me everywhere I went.

During the school year, I would create lists of books I wanted to read. I’d sneak in and make a wish list by digging through the robust bookcases the library had in store for me. As summertime arrived and we were about to go on a family vacation, I’d carefully pick up the maximum amount of books — which was a limit of 8 books that I was allowed to borrow during the three weeks we were not in town.

There was something about that place that truly resonated with me. From the different kinds of people coming in, to the serene hush, or the ever helpful librarian that always seemed to know where to find every single book as if she had memorized the entire library collection.

That particular place sparked my lifelong reading habit, and it was much later that I realized the dual nature of my voracious reading habits. While the sheer abundance of books brought me great joy, I gradually became aware of the intricacies and challenges it presented particularly in the realm of writing.


Observing excellence

In the past years, I’ve approached writing the way a student would: I voraciously searched for great pieces of writing wherever I could, and then read them diligently to extract valuable lessons. Countless times I’ve written the first paragraph of an article in 4 or 5 different ways to set the scene slightly different in order to evoke another emotion.

Being focused on learning the craft helped me to figure out what I like and don’t like about writing, and to develop a style.

Author Robert Greene quoted Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in the introduction of his book Mastery:

“Everyone holds his fortune in his own hands, like a sculptor the raw material he will fashion into a figure. But it’s the same with that type of artistic activity as with all others: We are merely born with the capability to do it. The skill to mold the material into what we want must be learned and attentively cultivated.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, p.1

However, reading great works and gaining a deeper understanding of literary elements also felt overwhelming at times. The awareness of what excellent writing has been written before can make us quickly realize how much work there is ahead of us. In some ways, it can take away the joy of writing a bit and instill in us the idea that the greatest books are too far to reach.

While observing excellence can both inspire, as well as overwhelm us, I strongly believe that knowing where “the bar” is placed, is also from which we can derive our strength. Studying literature and paying attention to what work has been done before, helps us to discover what made the writing great. Observing the old masters will hand us the tools to grow into that same level of craftsmanship.

Enrich your palette

The approach is similar to that of the Renaissance painters, who flourished working alongside more experienced artists. The immediate feedback and guidance that was offered to them during this so-called apprenticeship have incredible value to those who are just starting out.

Modern writers who seek out mentorship with experienced writers, or simply observe their work, generally tend to become aware of their weaknesses sooner and enhance their skills more quickly.

Take for example people like Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, or JK Rowling. Because of the overwhelming oeuvre of craftsmanship they have been able to deliver over the years, these female authors are praised and admired for a reason. The pieces of work are stunning, but the reminder to us all should be that not only my writing is basically an endless process, but theirs is too, as they’ve studied and have been mentored by their masters.

And even the best tennis player of all time, Roger Federer, hires someone else to teach him how to improve his craft. Ironically, even the most accomplished professionals in history have areas in which they can further improve.

So I’ve written a number of articles in the previous years myself, but I still consider myself a novice student — once you think it’s good enough, you’ll find something new that makes you look at the art form in a different way.

So if there is one thing I’d tell myself, and other bloggers or writers out there, that we should do it like painters used to do it — study the old masters. And if we can, study from them while they’re here. Expand your collection of books. Enrich the palette. There’s so much more to learn.


Thanks for reading! Now I want to hear from you: Which methods do you use to master your craft? Please let us know in the comments.



  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe quoted in Mastery by Robert Greene, p. 1.


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