Do you take time to practice writing small pieces? Or do you focus on the next big writing project?

How to Practice Writing Like Van Gogh Practiced Painting

Sometimes writing can feel like a race. We rush to finish the next manuscript or the next novel or the next short story. We try to be factories that churn out narratives that will sell. We jump from one project to the next because we've been told consumers demand a constant flow of new things to devour.

This race can be exhausting and discouraging. In the midst of it, we can lose sight of the fact that writing, like any art, is a craft that needs to be practiced to be perfected. There is value in slowing down, taking a break from larger works, and practicing small things.

Great Artists Practiced

When I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, one thing I was struck by was the vast amount of practice sketches Van Gogh had done. The museum had a few of his many journals on display. The pages were filled with sketches of hands and faces and shoulders and legs.

Van Gogh's studies of hands for “The Potato Eaters”

Nothing was complete. The same body part or flower was drawn over and over again.

When I visited the National Gallary of Art in Washington D.C., they had similar sketches from da Vinci. His journals were filled with page after page after page of small things: noses, ears, hands, legs, mouths. Under each of da Vinci's sketches were notes explaining which masterpiece experts think he might have been working on at the time.

Before committing paint to canvas, he studied and practiced the small things he knew would make up the larger work. Before tackling the Last Super, da Vinci drew thousands of faces and hands and flowing robes.

I imagine for both Van Gogh and da Vinci, sometimes this practice was intentional: “I'm working on shaping a hand in this way because I will need hands on this piece.” Other times, this practice was simply for the sake of practice. There was no masterpiece in mind. They drew noses to perfect their abilities to draw noses.

Writers Practice Writing, Too

We, as writers, can do the same. Not everything we write needs to be a part of some larger work. There is value to be found in writing small, simple paragraphs solely for the sake of building our abilities. By spending thirty minutes writing a description of a simple object, or describing a person we've seen, or building an image of a place we've been, we practice writing and refine skills that will come in handy when we produce longer work.

I like to do this when I go new places. This weekend, for example, my wife and I went to New York. We used the subway system to get around. Being trapped in a small car with people for twenty to thirty minutes gave me a lot of time to study and practice describing them.

At night, before going to bed, I took fifteen minutes to write short sentences in my journal about the people and places I'd seen that day. Here are a few quick excerpts of things I scribbled down:

  • There was the short Hispanic man with tired eyes dressed in all black, carrying a can concealed in a black bag that he sipped from as we rode through a straw.
  • The saxophone was larger than the girl's torso. It's once shiny gold color had bronzed with age and use. Still, despite looking like it was ready to retire, the horn's melody sliced through the sounds of traffic and the hustle of the city, demanding the attention of every passerby.
  • The young woman had an explosion of tight curly hair that made everyone around her feel like something marvelous was about to happen. Her makeup was so flawless when the train car moved into the sunlight, she appeared to be plastic.
  • There was the blond woman in the white tee, faded jeans, and black leather jacket. Her messy blond hair spoke her disdain to the world. She looked like she'd stepped into the present from a Bruce Springsteen video from the 80's. She was everything I imagined New York to be: defiant and ambitious, unique and stereotypical, apathetic and hustling.

I'll likely never use these descriptions in a larger piece, but that wasn't the point. Thinking through what I saw and committing it to words was nothing more than practice.

3 Tips for Writing Small Practice Pieces

Three quick things I try to remember when I practice in this way:

  1.  Using the “right” words is more important that using “more” words. Focus on getting the description succinct. Be aware of the choices you are making.
  2. The goal is to paint a picture for the reader. Ideally, the reader should be able to walk away with a clean image of what you are portraying.
  3. This is the moment to try new things. Now is not the time to be cautious with your descriptions. Experiment. Play.

Small Pieces Prepare You for Big Projects

Taking a moment like this to reflect on what you've seen will exercise your writing muscles so they are ready for use when you need them. If we want to be able to describe a room or an object or a person when we are writing big things, we need to be able to do it when we are writing small too.

If you can reflect on your day and describe it with words on a page, you will be able to paint a picture for your reader when you are writing a novel.

Do you have any tips for writing great descriptions? How do you use small pieces to practice writing? Let us know in the comments.


This week, take a page from master artists and practice something small. Take fifteen minutes to write about a person you saw, or a place you've been, or an object you interacted with. Describe what you remember, keeping in mind the tips above: look for the right word, create a vivid image, and feel free to experiment.

When you're done, share your small practice in the comments below, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers.

Want more examples and more feedback? Tonight I'll be posting all my reflections in Becoming Writer. Come join the community to read what others are doing and get deeper feedback on your work.

Jeff Elkins is a writer who lives Baltimore with his wife and five kids. If you enjoy his writing, he'd be honored if you would subscribe to his free monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive a free copy of Jeff's urban fantasy novella "The Window Washing Boy."

Share to...