Would you like to become an excellent writer, the kind that agents and editors are looking for?
You can become one.
Not by following one of those “ten steps to a bestselling novel” guides.
Not by getting feedback on your writing from members of your writers’ group who don’t know anything more about writing excellence than you do.
And certainly not by following one of the worst pieces of advice ever given to aspiring writers: “Just keep writing; you’ll get better.”
You acquire expertise the same way that people in other fields like sports and music do—by learning through practice.
Now you may think that you practice writing skills. Maybe you do morning pages, or a lot of freewriting.
But while such practices are great for self-exploration, they don’t teach you the skills you need to write for other people.
They don’t teach you how to grab and keep the attention of your readers.
To make that happen, you need to master a large repertoire of writing skills.
Writing—like hitting a major-league fastball or performing a Liszt piano concerto—is a complex skill. Like any complex skill, it’s best learned by breaking it down into its component skills and practicing each “mini-skill” separately, then putting all the skills together.
But how does one do that?
The Research on Excellence
For decades, researchers have been conducting studies to answer the question “What makes a person really great at what they do?”
The answer is not, as we might expect, “natural talent.”
Instead, researchers have found that people become experts through a combination of great coaching, dedication to deliberate practice, and imitation of models of excellence. (Good luck plays a part too.)
They’ve also learned that people who become experts always break a skill into its component parts and practice each part separately, then put them all together.
Think, for example, of an aspiring baseball player who practices hitting skills one at a time, first keeping his eyes on the ball, then positioning his feet correctly, then holding the bat properly, and so on.
After practicing each individual skill for a long time, he’ll start putting them all together into a swing.
Writing is an even more complex skill than hitting a baseball. If we want to improve our writing skills, we need to practice its component skills.
The skills athletes practice are both mental and physical; the skills writers need are entirely mental. Just as athletes train their bodies to move in certain ways, so we writers need to train the faculties that allow us to produce excellent writing.
We need “content” faculties—such as observation, imagination and curiosity—to give us ideas and material for our writing.
We need the skill of being able to establish a natural relationship with readers.
We also need craft skills. First the skills of the “large” craft or genre, such as creating characters and plot; second, the skills of the “small” craft—the ability to come up with effective words and arrange them into sentences that keep our readers turning the pages.
That’s a lot of skills!
Naturally, we can’t learn them all at once.
So we need to decide which one or two we’re going to focus on first. Once we’ve made that decision, we can learn those skills the way all experts do, through practice.
The Value of Deliberate Practice
The kind of practice that creates experts is not just mindless drill.
Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, the leading expertise researcher, uses the term “deliberate practice” to distinguish practice that leads to excellence from ordinary hacking around.
Deliberate practice is activity explicitly designed for a specific purpose: to learn a new skill or improve one we already have.
When most people practice, Ericsson points out, they spend their time on things they already know how to do. But deliberate practice, he says, “entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all.
“Research across [many different fields],” he adds, “shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.”
Great performers, he cautions, always have “this incredible investment of effort.” They generally invest about five times as much time and effort to become great as an accomplished amateur does to become competent. “It’s not,” he says, “something everyone’s up for.”
But if you are up for it, your writing skills will improve far beyond your expectations.
Let me show you what practicing one particular skill might look like.
Let’s take the skill of writing a simple declarative sentence. First, make a list of nouns, then make a list of verbs.
Suppose you choose these nouns: the boys, she, the city, we, Franklin.
And these verbs: run, fall, live, meet, go.
From your lists, choose a noun, and a verb that makes sense with it, and put them together, along with any other words you need to make a complete sentence. Keep your sentences as short as you can.
For example, The boys ran away.
Now pick another noun and another verb and make a complete sentence with them.
Do this practice several times until you get the hang of it.
As you practice, listen to the words you have chosen, not for their meanings, but for what they are doing in their sentences.
Notice that your noun (or noun phrase, like The boys) comes first in the sentence. Notice what it’s doing—naming a person, place, thing or idea.
Now notice that the verb comes second. Notice what it’s doing—saying something about what the subject is or does.
As you keep writing short declarative sentences, try to feel, with your mind, even with your body, this basic rhythm that’s fundamental to all English sentences: naming/saying something about what’s been named.
Or, as the grammarians put it: subject/predicate, subject/predicate.
If you like, you can take this practice even further by becoming aware of the four different kinds of verbs available to us in English:
- The be verb (Joe is happy.)
- Linking verbs – These do not show any action, but link the subject with the rest of the sentence. For example, in the following sentences, the verbs do not show any action taking place.
The pizza tastes wonderful. (Linking verb – tastes)
You seem nervous. (Linking verb – seem)
The audience stayed calm despite the explosion. (Linking verb – stayed)
- Transitive verbs – Here, the action (verb) is performed by the subject (noun) to the object (noun). For example, in the sentence Joe ate lunch, the action (eating) passes from the subject (Joe) to the object (lunch).
- Intransitive verbs – Here, the action (verb) is performed by the subject (noun), but it does not act on the object (noun). For example, in the sentence Joe ran down the street,there is the subject (Joe) and the verb (run), but the verb does not act on an object.
Try writing ten short sentences using the be verb, then ten with each of the other kinds of verb.
Don’t worry about the particular words you’re using; instead, concentrate on noticing, even sensing physically, the different qualities of each sentence construction.
Read your sentences out loud. What do you notice?
Now try writing a short passage with an awareness of the four different kinds of verbs. What effects can you create by mixing up these sentence types?
Imitate Models of Excellence
One of the most powerful ways to build your writing skills is to imitate a model of excellence. (This should be writing you consider worth imitating, not a model you feel you “should” imitate.)
Pick a passage by one of your favorite writers. Read through it slowly, noticing how your writer uses different kinds of verbs.
Now imitate the passage by writing a few sentences in which you use the same kinds of verbs in the same order as your model writer does.
What do you notice?
Develop Your Writing Skills
You’ve been practicing sentence constructions known as “kernel sentences.”
They are the shortest, most basic sentences available to us in English. If you feel your command of sentence structures is shaky, practicing kernels will ground you in the basics.
Once you’ve mastered kernels and can write them at will, without having to stop and think, you can go on to learn techniques for writing more complicated sentences.
- You can practice adding single adjectives to your kernels. (She looked at the blue sky.)
- Or adverbs (We lived together happily.).
- You can practice adding prepositional phrases. (These start with a preposition and end with a noun or pronoun. For example, in the sentence The man on the radio has a pronounced lisp, ‘on the radio’ is a prepositional phrase that describes the man.)
- You can practice adding participial phrases. (This is an adjective phrase that begins with a present or past participle. For instance, in the sentence Shaking his head, the professor went on with his lecture, ‘shaking his head’ is a participial phrase that describes the professor.)
- … And on and on through the many structures that can be used to add interest and music to our sentences.
- You can practice combining kernels and longer sentences into paragraphs.
- You can practice varying the length of your sentences to create rhythm, emphasis and interest.
- And there are many more techniques you can practice and add to your repertoire of sentence constructions.
With a larger repertoire of sentence constructions to choose from, your prose will become more varied, more interesting, more musical.
You’ll be able to arrange your words in the best order to create surprise or suspense, laughter or tears, or any other effect you want them to have on your readers.
Deliberate practice and imitation of models can be used to learn any writing skill, from diction and grammar to imagination and structure.
Writers, in general, are not used to practicing; we’d rather get started on that next novel.
But if we set aside a little time each day for practice, we could build our skills so that our next novel really will be better than the last one.
That’s because practice, quite literally, changes our brains, creating new neural connections. This means that with practice, our skills become more a part of us, something we don’t have to think about as we draft and revise.
Regular practice of writing skills sets us firmly on the path to writing excellence.
What are your favorite exercises to develop writing skills? Share them in the comments!
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