Practice: the Key to Great Writing

When I first started writing. I was sure that it would come as naturally to me as speaking or walking. I mean, I was communicating in a language that I'd known and studied since birth; it should be easy-peasy, right? 

Wrong. 

Writing is a skill, not an instinct. It's a unique means of expression that is different from any other means of expression, including speech. And it takes time and practice to develop confidence and facility on the page.

I know how to read music, but that doesn't mean I can play the trombone. I know how to use a hammer and a level, but that doesn't mean I know how to build a house. I can paint a wall, but that doesn't mean I can paint a portrait like Da Vinci. I can stand on my tiptoes, but that doesn't mean I can dance a pas de deux like Misty Copeland. 

If you want to learn an instrument, you need to practice that instrument for hundreds of hours before you become adept at it. You need to practice for thousands of hours on the same instrument in order to truly understand its nuances, and be able to powerfully express emotion through its sound without consciously thinking about it. 

I know this from firsthand experience, I can adequately play the violin, piano, flute, oboe, guitar, and harmonium. But of those, I only really mastered the oboe and the harmonium to the point where they felt completely natural - the point where I didn't have to think about what I was playing to create music that flowed as an expression of my heart and soul. And - here's the killer: I only maintained that level of facility while I was actively practicing for more than six hours per week. 

But here's the thing: I understood this about playing an instrument. I understood that I needed to practice in order to attain any level of mastery. I didn't question my worthiness to play, or berate myself because I hadn't attained symphony-level skills three days after I picked up the oboe. (Okay, maybe I did a little bit, but I was also twelve, hormonal, and a crazy perfectionist to boot. I got over it, eventually.)

Writing is not an instinctual means of expression. We aren't born knowing how to write. The skills we learn as babies when we develop the ability to speak lay a foundation for our understanding of writing, but they don't equip us to excel at it. Only time and practice can do that. 

And yet, because writing uses the same words which pour so fluently out of our mouths, we assume that it should be as easy and natural as speech. This fundamental misunderstanding trips up a huge percentage of would-be writers, and causes endless hours of frustration and self-doubt. 

When we forget that practice is necessary to attain mastery, we often wonder, "How do words come so easily to other writers?" As a novice writer, I questioned why I couldn't write like my literary heroes. If only I could capture human emotion in the way that, say, Guy Gavriel Kay does - in a way that makes it almost sacred, and yet utterly relatable at the same time - I would be so happy! What I forgot, in my burning need to compare, was that Guy Gavriel Kay has been writing for nearly as long as I have been alive. He is a genius, a master ... and he has tens of thousands of writing hours under his belt. There was no way that I could measure up to such a standard after I'd only been writing consistently for six months. To expect that of myself was, frankly, insane. 

And yet, most writers think this way - at least, most of the writers I encounter. We want a quick-fix, a way to make even our first attempts at writing amazing. We want to cheat the system. 

If you find yourself in this mind trap, there is no easy way out. You need to accept that, if you want to write the way you envision, with the ease you crave, you will have to practice for multiple hours a week. Every week. For a long time.

Many of the results of said practice will, quite frankly, suck. And that's okay. Every virtuoso was once a five-year-old squeaking away on her violin. But with time, writing becomes easier. It becomes more natural. You will begin to "play in tune" - to think in words, as well as in emotions and images. You won't have to search your mental database for hours to find the perfect words. Each sentence will flow eloquently onto the page with less effort, and your first drafts will have greater fluency and structure. 

But none of this will happen if you aren't willing to push through those initial, awkward, practice stages. 
 

Helpful Ways to Practice 

The good news is, once you decide to buckle down and start practicing, there are ways to accelerate the process and make every moment. Here are a few of the ways that worked for me, and which have worked for my clients over the years. 

  1. Read. Yes, reading is practice for writing - but only if you read in an observational, analytical way. Study your favorite authors. How do they put words together? What passages touched you more than any others, and why? What do you notice about the way they structure their material, their sentences, their paragraphs? What works, and what doesn't?
     
  2. Research. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of great books out there on everything from storytelling and plotting, to character development (useful for memoir writers!), to grammar and syntax. Read them. Play with the techniques they teach. Write sample pieces in different styles. See what happens when you stretch your habitual style. 
     
  3. Write. Write every day - not just in your chosen genre, but in any genre that interests you. One of my favorite learning practices is writing flash fiction. Fitting a story into 500 words or less is a great brain challenge, and forces you to examine your word usage in a whole new way. 
     
  4. Get support. Take a course in writing or literature. Join a writer's group where you can get actionable feedback (be sure to check out several so you can find a group that uplifts you and feeds your energy and passion). Find beta readers who fit the profile of your ideal readers, and ask them specific questions about your prose, content, and style.
     
  5. Let go of your attachments. The biggest barrier to learning is thinking we already know something. Be willing to approach everything with a "beginner's mind." Try things that make you uncomfortable, or push you to your limits. Not everything you learn will be helpful, and not every technique will work for you - but you'll never know unless you try! 

Practice isn't always a cakewalk. But it is rewarding, and it does produce results. The more you write, the more you will want to write. And the more you want to write, the more you will accelerate your mastery. 

The bottom line: You can be a great writer, as long as you give yourself a chance to be a wholehearted beginner. 

Happy writing, everyone! 



Bryna René Haynes is the founder and President of The Heart of Writing, the chief editor for Inspired Living Publishing, and the best-selling author of The Art of Inspiration: An Editor's Guide to Writing Powerful, Effective Inspirational and Personal Development Books. In over a decade as a writer, editor, ghostwriter, designer, and publishing consultant, she has helped hundreds of authors find their authentic voices and create powerful, memorable, successful works. She lives outside of Providence, RI, with her husband, Matthew, and their little Moonbeam, Áine.