It’s not all that surprising to me when I try a new hobby — sewing, hand lettering, or candy making, to name a few recents — and find my efforts don’t turn out like the picture on first try. Of course, they don’t. I’m a newbie. But it should be no less surprising that I’m still not an expert after 10 tries, or even a hundred. Mastery— becoming an expert seamstress, calligrapher, or chocolatier— can take hundreds, even thousands of hours of practice.
Of course, since researchers began to debunk Malcolm Gladwell’s suggestion that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become a master, there’s some confusion about the role of practice in developing expertise. The controversy stems mostly around the premise that anyone can become a virtuoso or the best in their field. Certainly there are circumstances and genetics that come into play beyond simply practicing. And it’s also true that practicing something wrongly— like swinging a golf club incorrectly over and over and over— won’t lead to expertise.
But for most of us, we can become better at whatever it is we’re doing through practice. That includes writing.
In The Art of Slow Writing, Louise DeSalvo introduces readers to two methods of practice from authors Geoff Colvin, Talent Is Overrated, and Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code. Colvin offers a five-step method: identify elements for improvement; practice structured activities designed for improvement on one area at a time; get feedback from a mentor or partner; plan to practice in short sessions over time; and don’t expect practice to be fun. Coyle’s method boils down to three steps: Chunk it up. Repeat it. Learn to feel it.
Of course there are obvious applications to our writing craft from both methods. Most of us know at least some of our own writing weaknesses, and it’s a great relief to imagine tackling them one at a time rather than all at once. We know we need to repeat exercises on the skills we’re weak in, just like we know we need to get feedback from other writers and editors. And short sessions is, for the most part, how our whole lives are arranged these days.
But the thing we’re missing is that we expect it to be fun. We want it to be easy. And we’re a little impatient about getting better quickly. Sure, I can be a writer without digging in and facing the difficulties of the craft. But will I be a good writer? Or a better writer? Probably not.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about some resources to help you practice and get better.
- In Ann Kroeker’s 88th podcast episode, she offers some tips for how to create a self-study writing course. A perfect first step.
- I also recommend helpful and practical writing books like Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories and Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story, which are loaded with instruction, exercises, and examples, as possible self-guided courses.
- Joe Bunting’s website, The Write Practice, especially this post which features 100 Top Writing Practice Lessons and Exercises, is loaded with tips for improving your craft.
- I also recently wrote an essay for Tweetspeak Poetry about how reading can make you a better writer, which tracks well with some of DeSalvo’s suggestions. She advises students to find examples in published books of how other authors tackled problems that students identify in their own writing, like dialogue or scene changes.
- Finally, classes and workshops can be a great investment and will offer lots of ideas for deliberately practicing your craft. We offer classes and workshops here at Frankfort Writers Center, but you can also find online workshops at Tweetspeak poetry, you can participate in group coaching sessions with Ann Kroeker, and you can check out local and regional libraries and writing centers in your area to discover what educational opportunities they offer.
We’ve all heard the funny little joke about how musicians get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Now, just imagine your writer’s equivalent of that grand concert venue, and get to work with some practice of your own.