Does Practice Make Perfect?

HoopThis question came to mind when I read Jody Hedlund’s blog post, Do Writers Get Better the Longer They Write?” I like her conclusion, and want to add to it.

Her question reminded me of the old adage,

Practice makes perfect.

Added to this adage is a truism some noted author of the stature of Steven King (maybe it was him … I’ve forgotten) stated: “You can’t call yourself a master of the art of writing until you’ve put in 10,000 hours.” Or was it 10,000,000 words? The point was, it takes a lot of practice to become a masterful writer.

What’s the truth of the matter? Practice does not make perfect. The practice of perfection makes perfect. This evolution of the concept came about when sports gurus discovered that basketball players who visualize sinking 100 perfect shots each day improve significantly more and faster than those who physically shoot 100 baskets a day for the same length of time. Shooters make plenty of bad shots. Visualizers never miss.

Obviously if you want to improve your writing, you’ll need to do more than keep your fingers moving. Jody Hedlund has an important suggestion regarding finger movement. Here are three for the “more than” angle:

Read the work of great writers of memoir and fiction

Rather than repeating tips in a previous post, I’ll add to them:

  • Pay attention to how the writer uses description and dialog.
  • Notice the structure of the story. How is it unique?
  • How does the writer manage the pace of the story and the flow of tension?

Look for ways to incorporate what you learn into your stories.

Practice awareness

Make it a practice to monitor your internal state and notice how you feel in different situations. What body cues do you experience? How do you physically respond? How might your behavior or speech change? Incorporate this awareness into your story for a sense of authenticity and develop connection with readers.

Pay attention to the world around you and use idle moments to explore fresh ways of describing what you notice. Look for unexpected links and connections. You many not have thought of it this way, but this is a form writing practice.

Play with words

Go back over your drafts sentence by sentence and think of the words as building blocks. Question each one. Does it add value to the sentence? Is it as precise as it can be? Would rearranging the words make the sentence flow more smoothly?

Bottom line

The key element in each of these tips is attention, which is another way of thinking about visualization. Basketball players visualize that ball sliding directly through the center of the rim and their muscles record the sensation of putting it there. When you read, you are developing a sense of what good writing looks and sounds like. That’s the writers equivalent of knowing what the ball looks and feels like going into the basket.

Paying attention to your surroundings and visualizing great descriptions is the same as shooting mental baskets. Mental writing can be as valuable as moving your fingers.

Playing with words draws upon the insights you derive from reading. Slowing down and paying attention to what you have written allows you to exercise your new insights.

Jody Hedlund urges you to challenge yourself. So do I. Add to her challenge the challenge of becoming ever more aware and attentive.

Write now:  Read a great book, write a review of it, think of descriptions of your surroundings as you move through your day, and/or play with the words in a favorite story.

Photo credit: Max Barñers


Jody Hedlund said...

Hi Sharon! Thank you for mentioning my post! Glad it spurred some additional thoughts. Hope you have a great weekend!

Sharon Lippincott said...

You are welcome Jody. It's a great post -- as usual.

SuziCate said...

Yes, we must practice more than just writing to get better at it; we must practice writing skills. I always try to remember the elements of story that draw me in and incorporate those in my stories. I want to physically and emotionally feel as if I am there. I don't always achieve this effect, but still I keep practicing!

Sharon Lippincott said...

SuziCate, "Practice writing SKILLS." Yes! You perfectly articulate the point I didn't quite nail. Jody kicked this topic off, I added to her base, and you have iced the cake.

kathleen pooler said...

I love this discussion, Sharon! Writing is such an multifaceted process involving consistency,conscious effort,discipline, creativity and skills. The more I write,the more I want to write. The more I want to write,the more I learn- a continual process of building writing skills by doing and being open to critique and doing it better. The blend of your post and Jody's post is delightful!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks Kathy,

It's a complicated equation and probably different for each person.

Unknown said...

Do you ever find that visualization begins in dreams or near-dreams? When I have something on my mind to write, I find myself thinking about it as I fall asleep and then again as I'm waking up and falling back to sleep in the pre-dawn hours. Some people say to write these ideas down immediately, but that would seem to interrupt the pleasurable moments.

Carole said...

Very nice post. Since words are your thing, you might be interested in a series of posts I have been doing on the word play involved in cryptic crosswords. The first one is:
It has now evolved into a daily series. I find it great fun - much better than ordinary crosswords.