A Guaranteed Secret to Becoming a Better Writer

There’s really only one way to become a better writer, and that’s to write every day.

Okay, that’s not really a secret, but if you’re not doing it right, you could write every day for years, and never get any better. Meanwhile, other newbie writers are leaving you in the dust, improving by leaps and bounds in a matter of months, because they know a shortcut.

And that’s the secret.

It starts with understanding how elite musicians, athletes, and artists all achieve great results in a relatively short amount of time

Start with Deep Practice

The toolkit of the writer: pen, notebook, and laptop computer

Every good writer tries to write every day, practicing their techniques deliberately.

In his book, The Talent Code, author Daniel Coyne breaks the pursuit of talent and skill into three “easy” steps: 1) Chunk it up. 2) Repeat it. 3) Learn to feel it.

Coyne is a believer in highly-targeted error-focused practice.

In the book, Coyne uses an example of a young clarinet player who’s learning a particular piece of music. She struggles on one passage, and works over and over to get it right.

A poor musician would just play the entire piece, start to finish, over and over, mistakes and all, until she’s put in her required practice time. But a good musician, like this girl, follows Coyne’s three steps.

She stops when she makes a mistake, backs up a few measures, and works on the part that gave her trouble. She runs through the fingering a few times, making sure her fingers understand what they’re supposed to do, then plays again. But she plays it slower, and does it a couple of times before moving on.

Once she makes it through the difficult part, she continues on until she reaches the next trouble spot in her song, and repeats the process.

The researcher Coyne interviewed for this example said that just 10 minutes of this deep practice was more effective than playing the song straight through, over and over, for an hour. In other words, our musician is getting better in one-sixth the time of a poor musician.

Athletes do this as well. They focus deliberately on different problems and facets of their technique. They don’t just mindlessly do the work or go through the motions.

A professional basketball player doesn’t just shoot free throws to say he practiced his free throws. He visualizes what he’s about to do, focuses on technique, and analyzes what he did right and wrong each time. It’s not just a matter of shooting the ball 100 times in a row, it’s a matter of purposely, intentionally, deliberately practicing proper techniques.

My youngest daughter, an aspiring illustrator says when professional illustrators are learning a new figure or character, will create character studies and draw the same face over and over. Or they’ll “rotate” the head, drawing it from every angle; it’s called a “turnaround.” They’ll repeat the studies and turnarounds until they feel comfortable enough to do it on their own.

How this Applies to Writers

While every writer is told to “write every day,” they usually think it means to schedule a special private writing time, say, one hour in the morning or over lunch, and just churn out words. They focus on quantity of words created, not technique. Once the hour is up, they’re done.

They’re missing all kinds of golden opportunities throughout the rest of the day, and if you capitalize on them, you’re not limited to that one hour a day to get better.

(And if we’re following the 10,000 hour rule, you’ll become a literary phenom much faster if you can practice five hours a day, not five hours a week.)

Writing is writing. Regardless of the reason you’re tapping out words on your keyboard, you’re writing. Every time you write something, you have an opportunity to practice.

When you write an email, that’s practice. When you post a lengthy response to your cousin’s stupid political rant on Facebook, that’s practice. When you write a report for a client, that’s practice.

Whatever you’re doing, pick a technique you’d like to improve, and work on it in everything you write.

Not just during Special Private Writing Time. Not just on your preferred genre and style. If you’re a fiction writer, but send a lot of emails during your day job, use that time to practice background narrative. If you’re an aspiring TV writer, use texts and chats as a way to practice dialogue. If you have to create a lot of reports for work, practice journalism-style writing by writing short, easy-to-read sentences.

And that’s the big secret: If you can harness deep practice, and use it consistently everywhere, you can greatly improve your writing. Just like our clarinet player, if you can do deep practice for 10 minutes, you’re racing past anyone who’s just doing poor practice for an hour.

And best of all, you’re writing every day. You’re following the writer’s maxim, and you’re doing it better than those who save it only for Special Private Writing Time.

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    About Erik Deckers

    Erik Deckers is the President of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency in Indianapolis, IN. He co-authored three social media books, including No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (2nd ed., 2012; Que Biz-Tech), and The Owned Media Doctrine (2013, Archway Publishing). Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL.


    1. Hi Erik,

      The first line of your blog post says a million words. “There’s really only one way to become a better writer, and that’s to write every day.”

      I have been told this many a time but each time I sat to write my mind wanders and I use to find it difficult to stay focused. But as you said practice make a man perfect, I think now I can write as much as I want to without distraction.

      One more tip to being a better writer would be to have enough knowledge of what we plan to write about.

      Thank you. :)

      • Hi Imran,

        Thanks for your comment. One thing I’ve learned about learning and writing is that I learn material better and faster if I write about it. If you’ve heard the phrase “See one, do one, teach one,” I think it really works. And for me, the “teach one” is done through writing. Once I write it — especially if I write it by hand in a notebook — the information gets locked in.

        So I would also advocate learning through writing. Of course, once you have enough knowledge, then your writing will get even better!