As I explained in my last post, I'm still mostly M.I.A., but I've lined up some terrific guest posts that will appear over the next few weeks.
Today's guest post comes from author and writing teacher Barbara Baig, who reveals how the path to productive writing may sometimes be, paradoxically, to put your writing on hold for a while.
Want to Become a Better Writer? Stop Writing.
These days, aspiring writers are told constantly that, to attract the attention of agents and editors, they must develop a platform and learn to promote themselves. But just about every article or post offering such advice also includes this reminder: First, you must write an excellent book.
But how do writers achieve this excellence?
Certainly not by following another piece of writing advice, very prevalent these days: Just keep writing, you’ll get better. Really? Can you imagine a hitting coach saying to a kid who wants to be a professional baseball player, Just keep swinging the bat, you’ll get better?
Aspiring writers can’t walk a path to excellence by repeatedly doing what they already know how to do; like aspiring major-leaguers, if they want to become professionals, they have to learn and develop professional-level skills.
This isn’t easy: there are a large number of skills to learn. For instance, can you reliably come up with and develop ideas and materials for pieces of writing? Do you have a writing process that works for you? Do you know how to establish and maintain a natural relationship with readers? These are some of what I call “content skills,” the ones writers must have to come up with material for stories or poems or nonfiction pieces.
Then there are the “craft skills” we must also have. Everyone knows about the importance of mastering genre—being able to shape a mystery or a romance or a memoir. But what about the “small craft”--the craft of choosing words and arranging them into powerful sentences that take hold of a reader’s mind and won’t let go? When you’re working on a draft or a revision, does your mind give you the words, the sentence structures, you need to accomplish this? And, if not, why not?
The default answer to this last question is “talent”: Some people have it; others, less fortunate, do not.
But the default answer, happily, is not true. Researchers in the scientific field of expertise studies have for years been studying experts in various fields, to answer the question, “What makes certain people really good at what they do?” They’ve discovered that innate talent has very little, if anything, to do with expertise. Instead, they’ve learned that what creates experts is a particular approach to learning: They call it “deliberate practice.”
This approach requires (among other things) breaking down a complex skill--like writing--into its component sub-skills, then practicing each skill separately until it’s mastered, then putting them all together. This is the approach professional athletes and musicians have been using for decades; they spend much more time practicing and training their skills than they do in performance. Writers can--and, I believe, should--do the same thing. Oh, sure, you can struggle through the writing of five novels, learning things about the craft each time, and finally make the sixth one work; lots of successful writers have taken that path.
But you can also learn your skills much more efficiently: by identifying the ones you need to learn, and practicing them. This is especially true in the realm of craft. Many aspiring writers have good ideas for stories, but they don’t know how to use the English language with precision and power. Many of them have been told this doesn’t matter: ”Just write. Some editor will fix your writing later.” This, too, is bad advice. Excellent writers are people who have mastered the power of language, who know how to use words and sentences to communicate, to move their readers, to keep them turning pages. You may not believe that you can ever get to their level; but you can.
Through practice, you can train the part of your mind that comes up with words to work more effectively, so that, as you’re writing, it gives you exactly the words you need. Through learning and practice you can acquire a large repertoire of sentence constructions, so that, as you write, you can choose the ones that will give your prose energy, focus, phrasing, rhythm, and other qualities that hold and keep the attention of readers.
Naturally, you need time to learn these things, time to practice them. Many aspiring writers have been advised that, if they just get those five hundred (or two thousand) words on the page every day, they can call themselves real writers. But what if their daily words have no power? How is this kind of unproductive writing helping them move towards excellence?
So, consider this approach instead. Stop writing. Figure out what skills you need to learn, and develop a routine for practicing them. If you don’t know where to begin, try this little experiment: Take a sheet of paper and fold it in half. On one half, write down all the things you can do well as a writer (for example, “I can come up with great ideas for stories”); on the other half, write down all the things you don’t do so well, or can’t do at all (for example, “My sentences are clunky.”) If you have a hard time thinking of things you can’t do, consider your favorite writer: What can he do on the page that makes you love his work? Can you do those things? Can you do them as well? Add those items to your list. (Do not include on your list any skills you have in promoting your work; we’re talking about writing here.)
What you’ve done is the first step towards becoming a better writer: You’ve assessed your skills. Perhaps you’re happy with where you are now; perhaps you’re appalled at how feeble your skills appear. Or perhaps, if you are just getting started as a writer, you are like beginners in any field: You don’t know what you don’t know. In any case, you now have, however tentatively, a starting point for your learning. You’re ready to embark on what I like to call The Mastery Path for Writers Seeking Excellence, a path whose focus is practice.
Now choose some skills to practice--let’s say, for example, the “small craft” skills ofwriting short, simple sentences, then elaborating them with bound and free modifiers,appositives, nominative absolutes and other techniques. Practice one technique everyday until you feel you have mastered it, then try another; in the process you will betraining your brain to use these various techniques without thinking about them.
When you’ve mastered a repertoire of skills, return to your work-in-progress or to one of your story ideas. Now your “small craft” skills, well-honed through weeks or months of practice, will give you a solid foundation from which to produce work that approaches the excellence agents and editors in the book business yearn for.
Barbara Baig is a writer and veteran writing teacher, who is passionate about showing writers what can be done with the English language. She is the author of two books from Writer’s Digest: How to Be a Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play and Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers. She offers free writing lessons at WhereWritersLearn.com.