The Best Writing Practice: Why You Need to Practice Differently

by Sue Weems | 27 comments

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?

The Best Writing Practice: Why You Need to Practice Differently

Aristotle once said, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

Weems’s translation:

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?

  1. Identify the biggest problem.
  2. Take two steps toward solving it.
  3. 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.

PRACTICE

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!

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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.

27 Comments

  1. Dennis Fleming

    The screenwriter Andrew W. Marlowe (Air Force One) once told me to DEFINE characters when we first see/meet them. DEVELOP them going forward. This idea applied to the first page, by embedding in it the story promise (Bill Johnson–A Story is a Promise) or goal, is something new and thought provoking.

    Reply
    • Billie L Wade

      I agree. I recently read an article which provoked this same idea, which was new to me also. In my entry above, I forgot to include the sense of smell: As she approached, he got a whiff of fresh laundry hanging on a clothesline. The article suggested the use of sensory details beyond straight description. Best to you in your writing endeavors.

    • Alison Guedes altmayer

      Hey, this is a great tip! Thanks for sharing.

    • Sue

      Love that, Dennis. Thanks for sharing it!

  2. Billie L Wade

    Sue, thank you for this timely post. I struggle with description and “show, don’t tell,” which for me is a form of description. I have books, articles I’ve gleaned from my online searches, and I’ve taken online courses. I’m taking your advice. I’m choosing two or three good articles or one good book and focusing for twenty-five minutes a day on practicing my description. Here is a first attempt, which decidedly needs some work:

    She sidled toward him, a resplendent, bright pink candy stick. A pink sweatshirt topped off skin-hugging pink jeans and studded pink flip-flops, which showcased her pink French manicured toenails. She carried a teal-colored leather bag large enough to hold a medium-sized dog slung over her shoulder. As she drew closer to him, he observed her flawless pink skin that looked as soft as a baby’s. Her wavy, copper-red hair was pulled back into a huge braid. She walked by him, seemingly oblivious to his salacious gaze.

    Reply
    • Sue

      Hi Billie, You’ve included a ton of description here– the image that stands out for me is the first one, calling her a “resplendent, bright pink candy stick.” It captures her essence, the way a quick look would. Some of the other details would be hard to spot without staring (but maybe he is) such as the toenails or studded flip flops. Would he be able to see the braid as she comes toward him? The other thing I like about that opening line is how calling her “candy” shows his salaciousness without having to say it out loud. One quick question- “sidles” usually means coming from the side in a timid way, but the description seems to indicate she is meeting him head on and then walking past him (and she doesn’t seem timid, but maybe it is just his description).
      Anyway- thanks so much for sharing your practice– I hope you’ll continue to write and grow!

    • Billie L Wade

      I enjoyed writing it. Thank you for the feedback and the encouragement!

  3. Katrina Dinouti

    I have been told by others that my pacing can use some work and not just from one person as well. There is other things that are issues like describing things, show not tell and grammar but those will be worked on in later times after pacing has some work put into it. This is a good resource for anyone wanting to improve in places but not take it overboard. Thanks for this article!

    Reply
    • Sue

      You are welcome. I often get bogged down trying to learn and fix too many things at one time. One thing at a time moves the work forward so much faster for me. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Haime Alshaef

    Thanks for this post! It really helps! My problem is that I add too much detail. I can’t help it. I feel like I’m not describing something enough so I go on and on with the details which makes the story kind of boring. To fix this, I’ve written a first draft of a story and then deleted unnecessary details and substituted words for others. It’s helped me a a lot!

    Reply
    • Sue

      Hi Haime,
      I fall into this trap sometimes too. It’s amazing how many times I look back at a passage and can eliminate all but a couple lines (or even better, combine the strongest pieces of different sentences). It’s great that you recognize it. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

  5. TerriblyTerrific

    Just what I needed. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Sue

      You’re welcome!

  6. John Grumps Hamshare

    Thank you for this great advice. The main point I gleaned from this in regard to my personal writing is the amount of time (and money) I’ve invested on books, groups, courses, watching videos, reading blogs, and researching articles about learning the craft–yet not doing enough writing to apply the knowledge gained. In my case, lack of confidence plays a large part even though many people (including a couple of published authors) have made favourable comments on my writing.

    Reply
    • Sue

      I hear you, John. We all suffer from self-doubt as writers. Sounds like you’ve built a good library of resources with your reading and courses– now to practice. Keep going!

    • John Grumps Hamshare

      Thanks for your positive encouragement, Sue.

    • Rhonda Flack

      John I couldn’t agree more, due to health reasons my writing is stop – start which doesn’t help with confidence

    • John Grumps Hamshare

      I hope your health is stable at present, Rhonda. I empathise with the effects ill-health can have. The positive aspect of your comment is that you start again after stopping. Way to go.

  7. Jason Bougger

    Great post! I really like the idea of picking out a weakness and working on it for 15-30 minutes. I know one of my biggest weaknesses is writing descriptions. I often fall into telling or listing things, instead of showing. And since I’m currently working on a fantasy trilogy, I definitely need to work on that.

    Reply
    • Sue

      Thanks, Jason! Hope you have some productive practice this week on description. Always appreciate your comments.

  8. lilian

    Many thanks for this article which covers every thing about ‘weaknesses’. I have heaps but my main ones are, shift of scene, sticking to the tense, and putting a punch into an important scenario.

    Reply
    • Sue

      You’re welcome, Lilian. Knowing where to begin is a gift! Thanks for reading.

  9. Alyssa

    I probably have two main weaknesses in my writing (especially in a first draft): characterization in dialogue, and meandering plots. The first is more because I’m almost not even sure how to differentiate characters’ speaking styles and such, the second is due to being a seat of the pants writer and knowing only the starting and ending points when I begin a story, sometimes only the starting point.

    Reply
  10. Debra johnson

    Loved this article. So much so I am going to re read it several times. AS for me I am as a classmate of mine said “I am a career student. I love learning, however applying what I learn is not so easy. I sometimes think the more I learn will some how magically transform me into a famous gifted well read author. But I also know learning something I don’t know is golden.

    Reply
  11. Carol

    I’m writing a contemporary romance between a fireman and a nurse. She, the nurse, broke the fireman’s heart and married his best friend. The friend is dead and he wants to take care of her and her children. My critique partner said my dialogue was “too on the nose,” that I needed “subtext.” Shock and awe. What’s up with subtext? So she sent me an article and I’m researched it and this week I’m going to practice understanding the subtleties of “subtext.”

    Reply
    • Sue

      I’ve gotten that note on my writing before as well, and I had to research how to write stronger dialogue. Funny you should mention subtext- I just wrote on that a couple weeks ago! Take a look if you like. https://thewritepractice.com/subtext/ Thanks for reading and commenting, and good luck with your revision!

    • Carol

      It’s so funny that you mentioned that, because I have that page opened and I’m sending you my subtext example.

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