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October 30, 2012
A book published in 2008 made the claim that, in order to be great in any field, you needed to put in about 10,000 hours of practice. It applied to musicians and writers and doctors–anyone wanting to get better in their chosen field.
Young makes a very good point, one I had suspected for a long time. It isn’t just about putting in the hours working. It is about practicing our craft.
Aren’t They the Same Thing?
Working and practicing are NOT the same thing. That’s why 10,000 hours of writing might turn one writer into a mega seller, and the other writer might still be unknown.
What you do with those 10,000 hours (or however many you spend writing) makes a lot of difference.
Work vs. Practice
What is the difference between work and practice? According to Young,
Many professionals confuse the two, and as a result their skills stagnate even though they’re investing considerable time.
Elite athletes don’t get better at their sport just by playing a lot of games. They do drills. Drills are highly focused activities designed to rapidly build proficiency in one minor detail of their sport.
Violinists don’t play every song start to finish to practice. Instead they identify the hardest sections and practice them endlessly until they’ve mastered them.
Yet, when we want to be a better programmer, writer or designer, what do we do? We just work. We don’t practice the highly specific, immediate-feedback oriented tasks necessary to cultivate mastery.
The fix is simple: if you want to get better you need to adopt the mentality of an elite athlete or musician and actually practice (as opposed to just work).
Get the Most from Your Writing Time
None of us have much time to waste. We want to make the precious hours we save for writing really count. How do we do that?
First, much of your writing time will be working time (planning and writing rough drafts and revising).
However, you’d be wise, if you want to be published and build an audience and sell lots of books, to set aside a portion (the bigger, the better) of your time for honest-to-goodness practice. Like the pianist and violinist who practice the hard parts over and over, we writers need to do the same thing.
Tasks to Master
We probably all could name several writing areas where we are weak. If we don’t know, we can ask our critique people. These are the areas to practice.
For example, one of my weak areas is writing figurative language. If I think of one original figure of speech per book, I’m doing well. So what’s my plan?
I’m going to take regular time to practice, using Cindy Rogers’ excellent book, Word Magic for Writers, which is chock full of exercises in every chapter. For feedback, I’ll probably ask a writer friend to look at my exercises (a writer who is especially good at figurative language).
Target Your Practice Time
If we spend our writing time doing the same kind of writing in the same kind of way, we can’t expect to improve very quickly. But if our practice time is intentional–if we target specific weak skill areas–we’ll make observable progress.
How about you? Is there one specific area you could study that would make a big difference in your writing? Or two or three areas that could become goals for 2013? Please share!
August 3, 2012
If that’s your struggle this summer, I found some things you might want to try!
Help is On the Way
Do you need to put the “prod” into your productivity? Then I’ve got the little tool for you! It’s called Write or Die, and there is an online version or a downloadable version. Write or Die is a web application that encourages writing by punishing the tendency to avoid writing. Start typing in the box. As long as you keep typing, you’re fine, but once you stop typing, you have a grace period of a certain number of seconds and then there are consequences.
Focus Booster is a free download that helps you focus! You can also use it online if you don’t want to download anything. “Focus booster is a simple and elegant application designed to help you eliminate the anxiety of time and enhance your focus and concentration.”
And if those don’t work for you, there are half a dozen MORE apps to help you focus on your writing in an article called “Quit Wasting Time Now”. Some are free, and some cost a small fee.
If you try any of these focusing helps, please report back to us on the pros and cons. I’m willing to give almost anything a try, if it will help me focus on my writing better!
December 14, 2011
[First read Part 1 of the series called "Writing in Flow to Make Writing Fun."]
The first key that Susan K. Perry mentions in Writing in Flow is this: have a reason to write. I’m going to break this into two parts.
First: The Reason to Write in Flow
For me, the reason to write “in flow” is that I enjoy the writing so much more! I can force myself to write, but it’s not much fun. A majority of the writers interviewed by this author had learned how to control their flow experience. They had learned what they needed to do in order to slip into this “timeless” flow state where the writing is so pleasurable.
If you can figure out how to enter the flow state more predictably, you’ll enjoy your writing much more. Thus you’re more likely to write more and produce more.
The “flow theory” states that you enter a flow state when the following requirements are in place:
- You have a clear goal and will get some sort of feedback (even if it something like tracking word count).
- You sense that your skill level is fairly well suited to the challenge of your writing (neither so easy that it’s boring, nor so far above your skill level that you feel anxious.)
- You are intensely focused on what you’re doing.
- You lose awareness of yourself and almost feel a part of your story.
- Your sense of time shifts, with time seeming to slow or stop.
- The writing experience becomes its own reward; you enjoy the writing itself.
Doesn’t that kind of absorbed, trance-like writing sound like fun? That’s an experience I’d want to repeat on a daily basis!
Second: Your Reason for Writing
In Part 1, I talked about a few reasons for writing, and why writing only for money or fame or to impress someone won’t help you get into flow. “A point often missed by novice writers,” says Perry, “is that by zeroing in on one or more of the right reasons–for you–you’re more likely to find the one that will help you enter flow and keep writing in spite of frustration and rejection. You must feel strongly motivated to get fully absorbed in the writing, if flow is to follow.”
Remember, your reasons for writing are your own! Jot the following question in your journal: “So why do I write?” Then take plenty of time to answer it.
Write down all the TRUE reasons you write. No one ever needs to see this. You might write because you have an insatiable curiosity about the world or the private lives of people. You might have had a disturbing childhood that left you with many questions, and you write for the answers. Maybe you write because you need someone to listen. Maybe you believe you have the answers to XXXX and you need to share your wisdom with the world.
This doesn’t mean find a critique group. To write in flow, you need to train yourself to listen to yourself. Popular novelist Elmore Leonard said, “I say my sentences inside my head until they chime with some kind of turning fork.” Other writers read their work aloud to find the rough spots. [I'd be rich today if I had a nickle for every student who told me that they knew something was wrong with the ending--or plot twist, or motive--but they were hoping I wouldn't think so. I thought so.] Pay attention to that inner writer, especially during revisions, that gives you the feedback that “something is off here.”
Please note, however, that paying attention to your inner feedback does NOT mean encouraging those critical inner voices that tend to harshly judge your writing. Nor do you want to entertain thoughts at this time of what some editor will think of your idea. This kind of feedback will keep you from finding that relaxed flow state.
In order to make flow possible, you have to find a way to feel both competent (not overly anxious) and keep your interest high (not bored). Many writers don’t outline because they don’t want to write a story they already know. It’s boring to them, and they lose interest. On the other hand, some writers (like me) like outlines because without them, the anxiety level rises to the point that they’re blocked. Everyone is different. There is no right or wrong here, but you must find for yourself the right combination of subject matter and planning for your stage of career.
When I started writing thirty years ago, I couldn’t feel that my writing skill “was fairly well suited to the challenge” unless plots were outlined, character sketches were detailed, and I knew the ending clearly. I needed that much planning for the anxiety level to come down far enough that the writing was fun. It was many years before I was comfortable enough to write without a greatly detailed outline. However, other writers are bored with “cranking out stories” where they won’t be surprised along the way.
What About Rewards?
I’ve had to plan rewards plenty of times for getting through a piece of writing. It was either writing I didn’t want to do, but it would pay some bills, or writing that felt too far “above me” in difficulty. But if you want to write “in flow,” in that timeless sense of joy, you will need to find reward in the writing itself.
If it’s boring, work to make the plot more interesting, more surprising, deeper. Make something happen in the story that fulfills a wish of your own! If your story is causing you so much anxiety, stop and figure out why. If you haven’t done enough planning or research to feel comfortable, do that first. (You can do that part in flow too!)
How to Use Key #1
Some practical ways to find your reason to write include:
- Reflect on why you want to write in general, or why you want to write this particular project.
- Keep your ideas to yourself instead of talking about them; write them out first.
- Define success for yourself. (Learning to write regularly and enjoy it is my idea of success!)
Next time we’ll address Key #2: thinking like a writer! Keep the long-term goal in mind: writing more and enjoying it!