Years ago, I had a chance to hear one of the Philadelphia 76ers speak about how he became a professional ballplayer. Now, I couldn’t tell you who the guy was even if he walked up to me today. But one thing he said always stuck with me.
When he practiced shooting the ball, he was always intentional when he practiced. When he practiced his shooting, he didn’t screw around. He didn’t goof off, and he didn’t take shots he wouldn’t normally take. He wasn’t a sky-hook shooter, so he didn’t shoot Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s famous shot. He didn’t do backward shots or trick shots. In short, every practice shot he took was a real shot.
“I don’t shoot these shots in a game, so I don’t waste my time practicing them.”
It’s the same for writing: if you want to improve your writing you have to be intentional with it. (Actually, this is true for getting good at anything, but I’m a writer, so I’ll stick with what I know.)
What does that mean? Writing is one of the most intentional activities we can do. It’s not like shooting trick shots in basketball, or going for a slow leisurely ride instead of a training ride on your bike. You’re either writing or you’re not, right?
Actually, no, you can even screw around when you’re writing. It’s in your attitude, rather than your subject matter. It’s reading when you should be writing (and no, “I’m doing research” doesn’t count). You can be just as intentional writing an email as you are a novel, or writing a comedy sketch as you are a marketing piece. It doesn’t matter where, when, or how you do it. Chris Brogan will write wherever he can find the time. And I carry my laptop and a Moleskine wherever I go.
How can you improve you writing?
When I’m writing, I always have three questions in the back of my mind.
- Is that the best word I can use? Is this conveying the right impact, drama, or humor? Dave Barry would take hours to write a single humor column, sometimes struggling with choosing which word carried the best impact for a joke. I’ll sometimes hit Thesaurus.com to find a good word.
- Did I set this up for the best possible impact? In humor, setup is crucial for a joke to be funny. You can have the best punchline in the world, but if you tank the setup, the whole joke fails. It’s true for every other kind of writing too. This blog post, a marketing brochure, a speech, anything. If you want to have impact, you have to set the reader up for it.
- How can I make this better? I edit everything. Even my emails get edited before I send them out. But I’m not always looking for punctuation errors or typos. I’m looking to make sure I’m satisfied with everything I’ve written. It usually works best if I can leave something for a couple hours, overnight is even better, and a week is a rare luxury. I have even edited some of my humor blog posts six months after I published them.
To improve your writing doesn’t mean taking all kinds of classes, or writing in your very special notebook with your very special pen in your very favorite coffee shop (just don’t tell my wife that; I use it as an excuse to get out of the house sometimes). It’s a matter of focusing on the task at hand and casting an eye at how you can improve your writing. Not just the piece you’re writing, but future work you’re going to do.
Do you suck at dialog? Work on improving the dialog for the next piece you write. Then use that new level of competency as your starting point for the next time, and try to improve from that. I used to suck at dialog, so I worked on it for months and even years. Now, unfortunately, my narration and scene description are less-than-acceptable, and I have to really focus on those.
But by writing my narration with my three questions, I’ll be able to improve my descriptions, so I can spend less time writing and more time sitting on a beach, drinking little umbrella drinks, served by. . . some kind of. . . woman wearing a dress that she bought at one of those. . . dress selling places.