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Practice Leads to Strong Performance

July 17, 2017 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified July 17, 2017

Almost every time I head to the gym, I end up above the basketball courts, looking down on those gathered below me. And almost every time I’m there, players have a pickup game going on in one end of the room while individuals or duos are down at the other end practicing shot after shot after shot.

Sometimes a young boy or girl is being coached by Dad. The fathers are usually patient and feed balls to their children without complaint. And, yes, maybe there are moms out there coaching their kids too, but honestly, over the years I’ve yet to see one coaching her kids on this particular court.

Sometimes an individual—child or adult—is practicing on his or her own, tweaking technique again and again.

And every time I see the players at practice at the one end or at play at the other end, I think of writers.

 

Practice is Vital

Whether you’re a ball player or a writer, you need to practice. No one can sink free throw after free throw without hours of practice. And no one can put together a cohesive piece of long fiction without practice.

And just as the basketball player drills and practices different moves and different shots—alone and with the team—so a writer needs to practice different techniques and skills, especially in the writer’s weakest areas.

Yes, we all want to play the game or write the book—we want to do it—but we have to learn how it’s done first. We have to learn not only how each individual part works, but we must learn how to connect the parts.

A basketball player can’t learn only to dribble; he must learn all the skills of the sport.

A writer can’t learn how to write dialogue only; there’s much more to stories than dialogue.

It doesn’t make you a bad writer if you need practice with at least some of the writing issues or fiction elements. You may have some outstanding strengths as a writer, but you’ve got weaknesses too. We all do when we’re just starting out. And if we don’t work through our weaknesses, we carry them through the years and into our many writing projects with us.

But we can practice. We can learn. We can get stronger where we are weakest.

So we can watch games and read books, but we can also hide ourselves away in a quiet corner and practice dribbling and taking free throws, practice plotting or writing action or dialogue.

We can learn from coaches and mentors. We can practice until we get the move or style right and then we can practice some more.

For some of us, the greatest current need might be to remove the distractions that get in our way. Rather than play at practicing, we need to actually practice.

I see an awful lot of people at the gym with their gazes glued to phones and other devices while they’re supposedly working out. Those distractions don’t cut it at a gym, and the same kinds of distractions can get in your way if you’re trying to learn how to strengthen one or more of your writing skills.

You’ve got to do some active practice, not merely hang around where other ball players or writers hang out.

That is, you’ve got to put in the time doing the work.

You can spend time doing research and learning about your story’s era or learn about literature, but if you’re going to write, you’ve got to practice writing. Hanging out in writing forums may be helpful in some ways, but gaining knowledge alone isn’t enough. You’ve got to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. You’ve got to write and then rewrite and then rewrite again.

When you practice, you learn what works and what doesn’t. And if you put in extra effort, you also learn why some approaches or options work in some situations and why others don’t.

A ball player can learn from watching others, but he has got to learn the moves in his own body. And a writer needs to learn how to create moods and tones and emotions and action through working with words him- or herself. When you go through the exercises and practice, understanding is added to your skills. And then those skills can be expanded, used in other situations because you’ve discovered why and how they work.

Once you learn their ins and outs, skills are no longer only situation specific; you learn how to adapt them to fit unrelated situations. You learn how to blend skills to create even stronger impacts in your scenes and stories.

 

Summer School

A lot of writers take a hiatus from writing in the summer. Families have plans, the outdoors beckon, schedules are different. But other writers use the summer to tackle a troublesome writing or fiction issue.

You may not have time to spend an hour every day on your work in progress, but it’s likely that you have some time to work on an issue that fights back against you each time you try to tackle it. It’s likely that you have an hour or two each week to practice writing transitions or dialogue or description.

It’s not a weakness to need to practice; the successful ball player certainly doesn’t think so. Dive in; pursue a skill that you’re absolutely horrible with.

Or maybe you’re not exactly horrible with any writing skill or fiction element. If not, then tackle the one that gives you the most problems.

•  Maybe you need practice with rewriting and editing; ask a writing buddy if the two of you can practice rewriting each other’s work. No, you don’t have to show your edits to one another. Just practice cutting unnecessary words or fine-tuning dialogue or descriptions.

•  Learn multiple ways of structuring sentences; practice a half dozen ways of writing several dozen sentences.

•  Bone up on grammar or punctuation until you know a few new rules inside and out.

•  Write a chapter from a work in progress from the viewpoint of a different character or in a different POV or narrative tense.

•  Practice writing chapter-ending hooks of different intensities.

•  Practice layering subtext under your dialogue.

•  Practice writing dialogue so that it doesn’t sound like dialogue from a bad movie.

Challenge yourself. Learn something new. Practice, even when practicing isn’t fun or exciting. Practice even when it’s repetitive.

We’re well into the summer in the Northern Hemisphere; kids in my part of the world go back to school two weeks from today. But let me suggest that you take the time to practice some of your skills this summer—or during the winter for those in the Southern Hemisphere—even if you’re not actively writing, not actually in the game.

Practice isn’t a waste of time; it’s vital for your skills and your writing projects. Allow yourself the time over the next month or so to practice and drill. Cut out the distractions, even if this means turning off the Internet for a few weeks. Step away from the current writing project for just a little while. And practice until you’ve mastered a new skill. Maybe two.

Test yourself. See if practice doesn’t improve your performance.

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Tags: ,     Posted in: A Writer's Life, Beginning Writers

24 Responses to “Practice Leads to Strong Performance”

  1. Mark Schultz says:

    Excellent advice Beth! The comparison to sports is great!

    • Thanks, Mark. The comparison seemed apt. And I really do think about writers practicing each time I see those basketball players practicing over and over. It seems, however, that no one recommends that writers practice their own skills. But what a way to perfect those skills.

  2. Helen says:

    Just wanted to say thank you. Have just started and was feeling disillusioned. Your blog above was just what I needed.

    • Helen, disillusionment tends to set in for most new writers at one time or another. It’s hard to stay excited and pumped up when the middle of the story bogs down or when you can’t figure out how to solve a storytelling or writing problem.

      But the answers are there and you can make the middle of the story sing. Here’s to challenges—may they inspire us rather than discourage. And may we conquer them in ways that drive us to higher heights. I wish you great success with your project whether it ultimately proves to be only a practice project or it leads to publication and an army of fans.

  3. As always, this is OUTSTANDING advice. It’s why I’ve always told young writers to go work for a newspaper sometime during their career. You learn to crank it out without thinking, and with an editor crouched over your shoulder, you learn to do it right. Then when you write fiction, you have a solid base from which to learn the nuances of story writing…..oh, and I’m also really impressed that you go to the gym!

    • Writers definitely get that training and practice at a newspaper. As you say—an editor hanging over your shoulder is going to make sure you do it right.

      As for the gym, I surprise myself. But if I didn’t go, I’d be at a desk way too long without a break. Plus, I was away from the gym for a while, and it was quite easy to put on the pounds. Yowza, that was a rude awakening.

  4. What a great post and one I am taking to heart!

    I will be starting my practice writing today.

    Thanks!!

  5. Phil Huston says:

    There is other good advice on this blog about, indirectly, practice methodology. Beth’s suggestions about taking your characters outside of their norms is one. On those days when no matter how many projects you’re looking at and none of them are talking back, take your characters to lunch. Get them in a fight. Make them buy a car or take a trip to an antique mall. Even if they’re zombies or wizards or live in a world all in shades of lavender. Take to the the Burger king on Sunset, or the cafeteria. Make them wait for self made baristas at the free coffee urn in Trader Joe’s. Just write. Not for word count or to prove anything, just write like you mean it. Clean it up. You may never use it, or you might publish a book of short stories where all your novels came from. Anyway, Beth’s advice is always spot on.

  6. Steve Lowe says:

    I always remember two quotes about creative writing:

    1.) Billy Crystal is advising his writers’ group in ‘Throw Momma from the Train’ how to get over ‘writers’ block’: “Remember… a writer writes!”

    2.) I recently heard someone in Hollywood talking about ‘writers’ block’ in screenplays: “Don’t get it right… get it written! You can always improve on it later!” (I think that the ‘right’ was also meant to be a pun on ‘write’ :-) )

    3.) Not a quote, but my own advice: I have a plank of wood just outside my bedroom door with: ‘This is the writer’s block’ written on it, and every morning, I have to get over it…

    Cheers,
    Steve

  7. Thanks for a great blog post to kick start my summer morning…!

  8. Dear Coach: So much appreciate your practice similes comparing writing to getting good at a sport or musical instrument. You made me realize that’s what i’m doing now….trying to learn a new writing style. (close 3rd person POV). I keep writing the same page over and over trying to get closer; trying to unlearn my journalism style (take many detailed sentences and summarize into one sentence still keeping the substance). It’s really difficult, but fun when I can stop procrastinating and get to practicing….well, you know the rest. So thanks again and again for the great coaching!!!!

  9. Thank you for this, Beth. I like the connection about going to the gym. I listen to writing seminars and podcasts while working around the home.

  10. Thanks for all your advice Beth.
    I’m inspired, rather than put off writing.
    I am editing my first novel at the moment, and just amazed at the amount if time it takes to get through the editing stage.
    It’s pure slog, but I’m finding I am learning a lot whilst doing it.
    The importance of every word is vital if you believe that many thousands of folks may read those words.
    You owe it to them to be thorough.
    At least I now know that ‘former client’ is preferred to ‘ex-client’

    • Rodney, congrats on making it to the editing stage. You will spend a lot of time editing and rewriting, but this is where most of the hard work is done. I find rewriting and editing just as fun as the initial writing, but in a different way. I love flinging words around for the first draft. But I also love working the craft. Different tasks but both work toward the result.

      I wish you success with your novel.

  11. Thank you says:

    I am finishing my first novel and wanted to make sure I had the punctuation right and it seems that I do, thank you for your post and I am looking forward to reading more.. Will.