“I don’t do exercises. I write stories that don’t work.”
I, however, am not Hemingway. I need to practice.
Last time, I wrote about the concept of “deliberate practice.” This is the idea that while practice is always of great importance, it is a better investment of time and energy to target that practice on our weakest skills.
The example used is that of a basketball player practicing his game for an hour. Well, if that player has a couple of hours to practice he does not necessarily practice every aspect of his game during that time. If she’s already at an advanced enough level, she probably won’t practice dribbling very much because she’s already pretty good at ball handling. She probably also won’t spend much time practicing shooting from half-court; offensively, it is not a very valuable skill. However, if she’s only making 50% of her free throw shots, she will spend most of her time practicing that shot.
The basketball player will spend her practice time working on the weakest part of her skill set. Anything else is a waste of time. Her practice sessions are deliberate.
We, as writers, need to practice our craft with deliberation. Just writing whatever comes to mind is better than not writing anything, of course, but to progress the most from our daily writing sessions, we need those sessions to be deliberate, targeted.
So how do we do that?
First, we need to identify the strengths and weaknesses in our own writing skill set. Deliberate practice is impossible unless we know what we need to work on. Most of us have a general idea of the areas we struggle. I, for instance, am well aware that I struggle rendering a scene involving more than three people interacting. I also struggle somewhat to keep my characters from all sounding like educated, middle-class, white Americans. You are probably aware of similar issues in your own writing.
What most of us may not be aware of are issues we think we do well, but actually don’t. This is where a trusted writing partner, editor, or critique group can be so valuable. Look back at their past critiques of your work and see whether there are areas they consistently mark up. These would be the skills we need to work on the most.
If you don’t have such past examples, you could ask your writing partner, critique group friends, or editor. It may be a little awkward, but most people are more than willing to help when they find out why you’re asking.
If you don’t have a writing partner or editor, or you don’t belong to a critique group, by all means, I urge you to find someone, or join such a group. It can be very difficult to judge our own work; we’re too close to it, too invested. We all need an objective eye to help us find flaws in our work.
The second part of deliberate practice is finding or devising exercises that will help you improve your weakest skills. This can be relatively easy. For instance, I did a generic internet search for “fiction dialogue exercises” and came up with multiple sites offering dialogue exercises. We could do the same with nearly any skill we want to improve. Other areas are even simpler. If I have trouble describing rooms or people, I can just take a few moments at the local coffee shop to write a paragraph or two describing it. I can do the same with people, scenery…whatever I want.
A studious writer will also make a point of learning from the authors she reads. She will read a scene, be impressed, then go back and study exactly how the author did it. One can even copy it word-for-word if you really want to deconstruct the author’s technique. (It’s a good way to pick up their style too).
To sum up, in order to benefit the most from our hours of practice. To do that, we need to identify our own writing weaknesses and design our writing regimen to work on those weaknesses. Otherwise, too much of our time spent writing is wasted. As the wise man said: don’t work hard; work smart.