A YouTube video about the common (but absurd) assumptions non-writers have about writers is making the rounds on Twitter. It’s both hilarious and depressing. And it makes me think about the importance of practice.
As in any profession, innate talent will get you only so far. If you want to become a good writer, you’ve got to practice. As the characters in the YouTube video so aptly explain:
“I assume you have used a steak knife before?”
“Do you think that qualifies you to perform neurosurgery?”
Just because you know the English language doesn’t mean you’re qualified to write a novel. You have to actively learn and mindfully practice the craft of writing. It’s said that, if you’re lucky, your third or fourth novel might finally sell.
For many of us, “practice” means writing every day. And that’s about it. But awhile back, Victoria Strauss posted an article by Barbara Baig on the SWFA blog discussing the role of deliberate practice in developing one’s writing skills.
As defined by Baig, deliberate practice included (and I’m paraphrasing here):
1. thinking about the specific skills involved in writing a novel or short story (ranging from proper grammar and writing dialogue to being creative, developing characters, and world building, among many others).
2. making a list of the skills you’re good at AND a list of the skills you need to work on (for many of us, just assessing this can be difficult; Baig suggests studying the type of feedback we get from our writing groups).
3. coming up with a series of exercises designed to practice weak skills and, therefore, improve them.
I printed out the blog post about a month ago. Approximately a week later I made a list of the skills I felt I needed to work on. I even started to identify possible exercises. Have I practiced them even ONCE since then? No, I have not.
Why? I know deliberately practicing would improve my writing. It would make me more mindful of my weaknesses and help me develop the habits to turn them into strengths. The problem for me (and, I suspect, for many of us), is intentionally setting aside time to work on exercises when I could be making forward progress on a novel or short story. Most writers have day jobs, families, and social lives that claim 90% of their time. The remaining 10% is precious. It’s hard to carve it up any further.
Even 30 minutes of deliberate practice a day would probably reap more benefits than an hour of drafting and revising on a project where my bad habits are already ingrained. Summoning the resolve to engage that practice daily is about as hard for me as not weaseling out of trips to the gym (in other words: it’s hard).
So – I’m calling in backup. Every day for the next week I will practice writing shorter, clearer, more active sentences (thanks to my academic background, a weakness of mine – as some of you readers may have noticed – is looooooong, multi-clause, wordy, passive sentences). To practice clearer and more active writing, I’ll make a list of 7 topics and spend 20 minutes each morning writing about one of them. No sentence will contain more than two clauses. The use of the word “that” and all instances of “to be” verbs will be kept to an absolute minimum. Adverbs will be forbidden. In exactly 7 days, I’ll report in on how well I lived up to my commitment and on how effective the practice was.
Anyone else willing to pony up and commit to practicing a specific writing skill over the next seven days? Come on. I double dog dare you.