Try This: Writing as Deliberate Practice

janav Try This, Writing Leave a Comment

27529172 - baseball player on a baseball stadium.
Right now, I’m watching the baseball All-Star game. It’s fun to watch guys at the top of their game play together – the best of the best. They didn’t get there by accident. Of course, they’ve been playing since childhood. They loved it, they had talent, and they attended practices and listened to their coaches until they got to the big leagues.

And they still have to practice.

In writing, we often assume that talent is enough, or the most important thing. We might accept that talent needs to be paired with writing a lot of words before we become good. We set our daily word goals, or have a goal to finish a major project like a novel in a year. Words are the units we measure progress in. Sometimes it’s a certain number of hours per day. But just putting down words, or putting in the hours, though crucial, isn’t enough.

In the same way that guys who want to become great hitters take batting practice, we need writing practice. And in order for batters to become great, they can’t just hit the ball over and over again and hope they get better. They need to figure out their weaknesses, and learn to hit all kinds of pitches. In the same way, we need not just to write, but to practice writing, in a deliberate way. We need to think about our writing weaknesses, and to do exercises that force us to work on them.

Barbara Baig discusses this idea extensively in her book, How to Be a Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play (she’s a big baseball fan too). If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend it.

We all need to be able to look at our writing (or whatever creative skill we’re pursuing) and think about what we could improve. Good feedback helps, although we often have an idea of what we do well or not so well. Instead of just putting in a daily word count, or amount of time, think about what you need to work on, and come up with a plan.

When you do this, I recommend a five-step approach:

• Figure out a specific area of craft you want to improve on. Dialogue? Imagery? Scene-building?
• Read craft books or articles that give advice on this area.
• Read works in your genre where the writer does this well. Read with conscious attention as to how the writer does it.
• Practice: either find exercises or develop your own, that will allow you to develop this skill in incremental ways.
• Put it to work: everything is theoretical until you actually use it in a “real” context, such as a poem, story, or scene of a novel, screenplay, memoir, etc.

I know, many of us hate to take time out from our “real writing” to do practice sessions that don’t seem to add up to anything, but trust me, if you do this, your writing will make giant leaps forward.

This is, incidentally, a lot of what an MFA program entails, under the guidance of a faculty mentor. But it doesn’t matter what stage of craft development you’re in, this is a lifelong commitment. Beginners can benefit from this approach, and MFA graduates will need to continue to develop. Deliberate practice is the key to stop spinning your wheels and keep moving forward toward mastery.

What are some areas you feel you need deliberate practice in? Leave a comment below, or email me at jana(at)janavanderveer(dot)com.

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