Practice makes perfect

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?”

“Of course.”

“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.

NaNoWriMo, where’s the love?

This is my first year giving NaNoWriMo a try and one thing that has surprised me is the general chatter out there regarding whether NaNo is for “real” writers or not (by which folks generally seem to mean published pros).  My feeling is that every writer, newbie or pro, will benefit from the practice of daily writing, so I’m frankly not sure what the fuss is all about.  Nevertheless, here are my thoughts on NaNoWriMo’s pros and cons:

NaNo’s advantages:

  • I’m nearing the end of Week 2 and am several thousand words behind of where I should be to “finish” on time…but, I’ve also written about 15K, thereby kick-starting a novel I might have otherwise never begun (and one I’m really enjoying writing).  Whether I reach 50K by the end of the month or not, I’m chalking this up as a win.
  • I write, revise, research, or otherwise work on my writing regularly, but the habit of putting down 2000 or so new words every day is a valuable one to develop.  NaNo has helped me develop this habit.  Again, a win.
  • Lets be honest, we all have goals we’d like to meet that fall forgotten into the gutter where they molder and die alone.  But when we announce those goals to the world at large, post our progress on a website, and read about the progress of our friends on Twitter, Facebook, and the like…well, the social pressure of something like NaNo can be very motivating (though also occasionally disheartening).  It’s a little embarrassing to see your buddies’ word counts grow while your status bar just sits there stagnating.  I’d be willing to bet social pressure plays a pretty big a role in how many people “win” NaNo.

And, for the cons:

  • The biggest drawback of NaNo, in my view, is that when you’re cranking out 50,000 words in one month and the NaNo cheerleaders are shouting “keep going!” “don’t edit!” “go!”…well, you get a frantic sort of feeling that isn’t conducive to reflection and revision.  There’s more to drafting a novel than just word count.  Giving yourself time for ideas to percolate, mutate, and grow into something more twisty and gorgeous than you first envisioned is an important part of the drafting process.  NaNo might not be the best means to facilitate plot and character development.

Some are quite critical of NaNoWriMo and say it’s a waste of time engaged in by only unprofessional writers who will produce mostly drivel.  While I don’t doubt a huge quantity of drivel is produced by writers during the month of November (and could provide whole passages of said drivel from my own manuscript), there are also plenty of examples of novels that go on to be finished after NaNo ends (50K is not really novel length, after all), revised, edited and eventually published (famously, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, but also (for speculative fiction fans) Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal and many others).  For many of these authors, the salient point is that NaNo provides a forum for setting a meaningful deadline and getting that first draft (or a big portion of it) down on paper.

NaNoWriMo isn’t really about finishing a novel in a month.  It’s about publicly shaming yourself challenging yourself to internalize what really amounts to a professional writing behavior: getting down a daily word count.  This is the advice that EVERYONE gives newbie writers: write, write, write.  Try to carve out 30 minutes, an hour, whatever, each day and write.  All NaNoWriMo is doing is saying to try this for a whole month.  All the rest about finishing a novel and so on and so forth is just window dressing.

So, bottom line.  If you struggle with producing a regular, daily word count and you want an external task-master (ah, that ever-helpful social pressure) to assist you in making it a habit, NaNoWriMo is an excellent tool for achieving your goal.

That’s my two and a half cents.  What are your thoughts on NaNo?