Writers write, right? Isn’t that all there is to it? If we really look at what will provide growth and improvement in both writing and confidence, there are a few other activities that should be a part of all of our lives.
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I want to say up front that the list of things I’m about to share with you may sound a bit daunting. For someone who only has a limited amount of time to dedicate to writing, it might even seem discouraging. But I want you to take a deep breath, and know that a.) these things do not need to be done every day and b.) you are probably doing some of them already!
When we talk about a “writing practice”, what we’re talking about is the intentional habit of writing AND learning and developing your craft. Writing is not something that can be mastered; there is always something more to learn or something new to try. If we think of our writing life as a practice rather than a destination, we are able to relax into the moment rather than rushing to get there.
As an aside, I feel like this is my life’s work, to figure out how to keep this perspective in all areas of my life, rather than always being in a hurry to arrive at a certain milestone or experience. Anyone else?
I’m going to break down the different elements of an effective writing practice into two parts: the essential elements and the bonus elements. Now, make no mistake – leaving the bonus elements completely out of your life will negatively impact your growth as a writer. But I want to allow you to find where they fit in your life, and not dictate to you how much or when you should do them.
The essential elements of a writing practice, the non-negotiables, are writing forward or producing new work, revision, sharing your writing with others, and intentional thinking about your story away from the computer. Let’s quickly take a look at these one at a time.
Writing forward or producing new work is pretty straightforward. If you aren’t doing this, you aren’t writing, and I don’t think I need to say much more about this.
Revision is something that should be done throughout the various stages of your project, from the idea and planning stage through to the days before you are ready to submit. I talked about this in detail in Revising Along the Way.
Sharing Your Work
Sharing your work with others is an essential because writing is a conversation. It’s communication. Without someone on the receiving side, there is no conversation. Whether we’re talking about asking for feedback or simply sharing it with a loved one because you want to, sharing your writing with others strengthens your spine and gives you the confidence to do it when the stakes are higher. These two reasons – communication and confidence – are why I believe this should be an essential part of your writing practice.
Thinking About Your Story
The final essential is thinking intentionally about your story when you’re away from the work. Whether you’re driving, in the shower, or on a walk, spend a few minutes losing yourself in the story. You never know what ideas will arrive when you aren’t trying to force them onto the page. You may also find new clarity around a question that you have been grappling with. Plus, it’s super fun.
So those are the essentials. Now let’s dive into the other elements of an effective writing practice. This work can be built in however and whenever you have time, and chances are good that you already are doing some or all of them!
The first element is studying craft. At first glance you might think I’m talking about reading a writing craft book, and certainly that is one way. Other ways include taking a class or listening to an author interview. My recommendation to all of my clients is that they choose one topic for study at a time. This can be tricky, especially since there is so much good stuff out there to learn from! But choosing one topic – say, developing strong characters – allows you to zero in on understanding and applying what you learn.
The second bonus element is studying one or more mentor texts. I talked about mentor texts in detail back in How to Read Like a Writer, but to briefly explain, a mentor text is a book (or whatever form your writing) that is similar in genre, structure, and possibly topic to yours. You are looking for the different moves that the writer made, studying how they were able to engage the reader effectively. This isn’t reading for fun, this is breaking apart the engine and looking at how it was put together.
The final element is craft practice. This happens of course while we are writing forward, but it is also something that can happen in isolation on the side of your work in progress. Sometimes this can happen in tandem with studying craft, if the book or class provides activities or prompts. But you can also do it on your own based on what you want to improve. Let’s say you want to improve your ability to describe settings or scenery. You can take a notebook and sit anywhere, even your kitchen table, and describe everything you see in as much detail as possible. Doing this activity several times can’t help but strengthen your descriptive muscles.
I want to touch on one more thing, and that’s journaling. Many writers journal, and many people who don’t call themselves writers journal. Some writers don’t journal. Journaling can take many forms that I’m not going to take the time to describe here, but I usually think of journaling as being more about self-development and exploration than a writing practice. That said, you may choose to use journaling to explore your thinking about your story, and that is completely appropriate and valuable. If you do this, find a way to build it in to your writing practice, but don’t let it substitute itself for writing forward on work you eventually want to share with others.
Writers, it’s important to recognize that there are as many different writing practices as there are writers. We all do the best we can with the limitations and opportunities given to us by our daily lives and responsibilities. It’s important that, rather than worrying about doing a writing practice the right way, that you find what works best for you and incorporates these elements we’ve talked about today in a way that makes sense in your life. I’ll talk to you next week!