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.
Start with Deep Practice
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 many writers are 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 get 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.