Daily writing produces a kind of experience and writing practice that is irreplaceable. But what if I’m writing every day, but my writing is still falling short of where I want it to be? (I’m asking for a friend.)
Do I push away from my writing desk to get better? Do I need a university course? Should I pay an editor? Sacrifice my first born child or a kidney?
Aristotle once said, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”
On the surface this is obvious. Write more! I tell myself. But writing more is not enough. (Insert exasperated sigh.) Isn’t it hard enough just to write? What else do I have to do?
Practice differently. This is the secret to becoming the writer you want to be as quickly as possible.
On our own, we get stuck
While working on revision last month, I found myself paralyzed by several plot holes. In addition to the holes, entire passages of dialogue were lackluster, I was missing a key turning point, and my main character was losing hair. (That last one might have been more of a typo.)
I didn’t know how to move forward. I took a break. After a week, I reframed my failure with one question: What would I tell one of my students or writing friends to do in my situation?
- Identify the biggest problem.
- Take two steps toward solving it.
- Revisit the work and repeat.
I chose one problem, wrote two solutions, picked one I liked best and continued with the next problem.
The toughest part? Identifying the biggest problem.
Come to think of it, this is the one thing that holds us back from more effective writing practice. We don’t know or can’t see our weaknesses.
How to find our weaknesses
For a long time, I thought that if I simply wrote more I would eventually get better. To some extent, I did improve. But do you know when I leaped forward in my writing? When I showed my writing to others for feedback and when I practiced with purpose on my weak areas.
How do we find our weaknesses, though?
Here are three people you can ask:
1. Ask a critique partner or group.
(Big gulp.) I know sharing your work with a critique partner or group is like going on a first date and handing them your first born child. All the warning bells explode in your head, and you’re sure everyone can hear your heart palpitations. (Maybe it’s just me.)
We’ve all had that person or group who has critiqued us in an unkind way. Don’t let one (or ten) hard experiences stop you. It’s worth the effort to find a person or group who encourages you and can articulate what they see in your writing. (We're partial to this one!)
We love the OREO method (especially for early critiques of work), but at minimum, you need kind-hearted readers who are able to specifically describe what works and what doesn’t. Note: they should NOT be fixing it for you or rewriting your work in their own voice.
Also, reciprocate and be a great critique partner yourself, which is also coincidentally a great way to grow.
2. Ask a teacher or editor.
If you are fortunate enough to be in school, pay attention. Many writing teachers leave comments on papers. Embrace them! Look for patterns in the teacher’s feedback and apply it to your next writing piece.
If you’ve graduated, there are tons of online classes (many are free!), and some provide feedback on submitted work. (Search “open courseware writing classes” or “MOOCs on writing” to explore.)
You can also hire an editor to help you sort through your story or writing, but it will cost you. The first time I worked with a developmental editor, it cost me about $100/ hour and I didn’t end up with a saleable novel (to be fair, I didn’t start with one either).
You know what I received? An education. It was worth every penny, because I learned so much from the one-on-one phone calls that pushed me forward in ways I hadn’t dreamed. Furthermore, I walked away with a list of weaknesses to work on. What a gift!
3. Ask yourself.
You probably know at least one area where you need to grow, whether it’s better dialogue, grammar, or characterization. As I tell my students, stop waiting for someone else to point out that you don’t know how to use commas—go research how to use commas and practice until you master it. This is pretty powerful when you stop bashing yourself and realize you can overcome a weakness on your own.
If your work emerges from those three people with only one problem, kudos. Your job will be easy (although you’ll probably need to spend your saved time expanding your reading group). If you’re like me, though, you will have a host of issues staring you in the face and you won’t know where to begin.
The one secret to improving your writing practice
Choose one of the weaknesses you identified and set a timer for fifteen to thirty minutes. DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP. (Sorry for the all caps, but seriously, don’t work on more than one thing and limit your time.)
Research “Most common errors __(insert weakness here)__.” Read a few articles (or watch videos) and jot down notes and examples that help you. Search “Best ways to improve __(insert weakness)__.” Read an article or watch a video and take a few notes. I’m sure you can come up with even better search terms, but those will get you started.
Now, here is the key step almost everyone skips: is your pencil poised? Are you ready?
APPLY what you learned immediately and practice it. Don’t buy four more books and an online course. Apply the one thing you researched to your writing. Now. While it’s fresh in your mind.
If it feels awkward and hard, you're probably doing it right. This is deliberate writing practice. Keep going!
Was your goal to improve dialogue and the article stated to default to “said”? Search through your manuscript or write a new passage and limit the dialogue tags you use.
Was your weakness comma use? Look at your notes and compare your examples to your own sentences, correcting as many as you can based on the one rule you studied.
Was your goal revising an introduction? Using your notes, write a sentence that summarizes a new way to open your story. (Write two or three, and then pick the one you like best).
Of course you will benefit from deep dives into books and courses on writing, but too many of us get bogged down “learning” about writing rather than applying what we’ve learned and actually writing.
The benefits of focused writing practice
In a recent comment discussion with regular Write Practice reader Jason Bougger, I was reminded of Donald Graves (a writing teacher) who once shared a great analogy about writing and golf.
He said when someone learns to play golf, the instructor will have the novice hit a bucket of balls. The instructor immediately sees a hundred things that are wrong—the grip, the back swing, the feet, etc, but a wise instructor also knows he can't share all of them at once. So he points out one thing and has the golfer hit another bucket until that ONE thing is mastered. Then they move to the next thing.
Consider this: the golfer could hit a million balls the same way, but without seeing and practicing an improved grip or back swing, he will never be a significantly better golfer.
The same is true for us as writers, which is why we need to practice differently. Work through one weakness this week. Next week try another. The cumulative efforts of small, focused, purposeful writing practice will result in much stronger writing. Write your way to the prose you want.
Give it a try and let me know how it goes!
What writing weakness do you plan to practice this week? Let me know in the comments.
Choose something you know you’d like to improve in your own writing. Set a timer. Take eight minutes to research an article or video that helps you understand the concept better. Take some notes. Then, in your last seven minutes, apply what you learned to a work in progress or to a new writing piece.
Share what you researched in a sentence and a short excerpt from your application in the comments. Encourage one another and share resources!
Sue Weems is a writer, teacher, and traveler with an advanced degree in (mostly fictional) revenge. When she’s not rationalizing her love for parentheses (and dramatic asides), she follows a sailor around the globe with their four children, two dogs, and an impossibly tall stack of books to read. You can read more of her writing tips on her website.