“Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration?”Ann Patchett, “The Getaway Car”
Want to become a better writer? Forget sitting around waiting for inspiration. You’re going to have to practice. You can improve quickly or slowly, but you won’t make progress without practice.
Practice is almost magical—and it’s accessible to everyone.
Reframing Your Feelings About Practice
My parents made my siblings and me take piano lessons as children.
As an adult, I recognize the gift of that decision. Music lessons introduce us early in life to the cumulative power of practice. At the time, however, it felt like a mixed blessing.
Unfortunately, many of us learn the wrong lessons as kids. We decide that practice is a boring chore. (Scales? Exercises? Who wants to do that?)
As a child, I did the least amount of practice possible without disappointing my teachers or getting in trouble. I had the fortunate ability to learn music quickly. When I showed up the next week with a piece entirely memorized, it looked like I’d spent hours slaving away on the repertoire. But then, having learned the piece, I stopped making progress. I just moved on to the next piece.
(I’m pretty sure my teachers knew that I was slacking.)
Only as an adult have I learned how to approach practice with intention, and to make the most of the time that I invest in it.
Showing Up is Just the Start
If you practice nearly anything long enough, you will get better. If you write every day, your writing will improve and become more fluid. But you may also reinforce bad habits or writing mannerisms that don’t serve you well. If you stay in your comfort zone, your growth will slow.
Make better use of your practice time by adding intention and experimentation into the mix.
In his book Peak, Anders Ericsson writes about the power of deliberate practice—the kind that stretches your abilities. With deliberate practice, you can achieve your goals more quickly.
Choose one aspect of your writing and experiment with it—pacing, dialog, sentence structure, vocabulary—it doesn’t matter. I’m working on a journal just for storytelling. Next, I may choose something else to tinker with.
Be Intentional, and Messy
When you experiment with a new skill, early results can be ugly. You can either get discouraged or treat it as an opportunity to grow.
Practice is messy—that’s why we do it on our own, not on with an audience.
The practice rooms in music buildings are often in the basement, probably to protect the passer-bys from the results of practice! Give your writing practice a safe space, a “practice room” tucked in the basement of your writing life, where you can retreat for yourself.
Create a journal or online practice file where you can tinker with writing skills. Write something that’s truly horrible—a story that has no identifiable ending, a sentence that crashes and burns before its final clause. Or try to write something in the style of a favorite author and see what that teaches you. Is it harder than you thought? Maybe that tells you something about the way you think and write.
Without mistakes or failures, you won’t grow as a writer. So, make a mess, and then learn from it. And keep showing up and doing it, again and again. Each pass, each repetition, each incremental step is taking you closer to your future, better writing self.
Get Expert Coaching
Expert feedback can speed up your progress, getting you to your destination much faster.
In my singing life, I work with a fantastic voice teacher, Julia Nielson. Sometimes we have “breakthroughs” in my lessons—real ah ha! moments. But exciting as they are, breakthroughs are fleeting. Real growth happens when that new insight becomes a reliable part of my skills set, readily available when needed. That happens through practice.
An expert coach can offer feedback that fuels productive practice. Whether you call on a writing coach, a teacher, or a skilled editor, look for someone who can help you raise your skills. (Coaching is different than feedback. Readers can provide feedback without knowing how to improve your skills.)
Ready to Practice?
The barriers to getting started are not high. You need something to write with and time. It doesn’t have to be hours a day. Perhaps you can find only 10-15 minutes. That’s enough to make progress, if you show up with intention.
Pick something, create a journal for it, and experiment with it for a month or two. Commit to a cadence: every day, four times a week, whatever you can manage consistently.
After a couple months, flip back to the first page of the journal and read it again. Have you improved? Are you seeing changes that flow through to other things you write?
That’s the magic of practice. When approached with a sense of experimentation and exploration, it can be rewarding and even fun.