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Practising How to Write

I recently read a great blog post by Adam Lock entitled ‘Is the Talented Writer a Myth?’ In it, he explores whether you need talent to become a successful writer or whether it is all down to hard graft. One of the things he touches upon, is the idea (posited by Malcolm Gladwell in the book ‘Outliers’) that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master any pursuit. 10,000 hours doesn’t seem like that high a number at first glance. But when you break it down, it amounts to 3 hours of practice every calendar day for 10 years. So if you’re just starting out then that’s a long road to travel before you reach the point where you have become a master. Whether or not 10,000 hours necessarily holds true is up for debate. But one thing is certain, your approach to practice affects the speed at which you improve.

The art of practising can be a difficult one to master

Take the example of a child learning the piano. They want to play ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ by Rimsky-Korsakov. It is an exceptionally challenging piece of music and is in no ways suited to a beginner. A bad way of practising would be for the child to attempt the piece all the way through every day for 10 years. By the end of 10 years, they would be closer to being able to play it but they would probably have suffered several temper tantrums along the way. A much better way of practising would be for the child to learn all of the required techniques in isolation, gradually ramping up the difficulty of what they attempted and only when they were sufficiently skilled moving on to ‘Bumblebee’. At that point, they might learn each hand separately, they might practise it slowly with a metronome, they might alter the rhythm of the chromatic scales to help strengthen their fingers etc. By the end of 10 years, they would be much more proficient than the first child.

But how does this apply to writing?

Step 1 – Know Your Weaknesses

If you are reading this blog post, you are not an absolute beginner. The only true beginner is a newborn baby. From that point forwards, you are surrounded by burbling adults, you learn to read, you learn the mechanics of writing, you are challenged to write words, sentences, paragraphs, essays and stories at school. So anyone who has stumbled across this blog post is much further along the path to mastery than the piano playing child above. You already have the basics and it is about refining your skill rather than learning everything from scratch.

In order to be effective with what you practise, you need to know what your weaknesses are. For some people this will be easy, for others it will be quite tricky. Think about what you struggle with. Ask a writer friend to read through your work and identify areas for improvement. Sift through previous feedback from editors, course tutors, unsuccessful competition entries etc. Make a list of things that you feel could do with some work and keep it close at hand.

Step 2 – Passive Practice and Building the Foundations

Just as a tennis player might watch a coach demonstrating a forehand or an artist might meander round an art gallery looking at different painting methods, writers can learn a lot through passive practice – or, to put it another way, through reading other people’s work.

I try and read at least one piece of flash fiction or one short story per day and I always have a novel on the go. However, if you want to get more out of reading, then it’s necessary to engage with the writing in some way. Pick out your favourite sentence, write an honest review (even if it’s only in your head) or think of ways you think the writing/structure/characterisation could have been improved.

If there is a writer that you particularly admire, try simply copying out a passage of their work. This will get you deeper into the rhythm and flow of their writing and the patterns they use should be ‘stored’ in your muscle memory for later use.

Returning to the example of the tennis player for a second, they will build foundations of fitness and tactical thinking whilst away from the tennis court. In a similar way, a writer can build resource banks of things they can refer to later to help them with their writing/editing. This might be a list of words/phrases that they tend to overuse or ones that suggest a lack of concision. It might be a crib sheet for effective editing or a list of words to describe a character’s face.

Step 3 – Deliberate Practice

This is a step that many writers probably don’t do enough of (or do at all). Just as playing ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ at full speed is exciting but practising all of the techniques in order to play it is reasonably tedious, the same is true for writing exercises. They will probably remind you of English homework from school – often seemingly without a real purpose. However, they can be really useful in honing specific skills:

  • To improve concision – take a piece of writing and look for five words that you could prune without losing meaning. The next day try a different piece of writing and try for ten words, then fifteen, then twenty.

  • To improve variation of sentence length – write the numbers 1-20 in a random order (i.e. 3, 14, 7...) then write a piece where each sentence has the corresponding number of words in it.

  • To increase use/variety of imagery – take an object/action each day and come up with several similes or metaphors you could associate with it.

Whilst you’re doing the above, don’t worry about anything else except the specific skill you are practising. They are like parade ground drills and should help improve muscle memory so that the next time you come to write something, what you have learnt will be lurking at the back of your mind.

Step 4 – Start Slow and Take Things to the Extremes

Good practice should generally be incremental. Most people aren’t able to read a book on show vs tell and then straightaway demonstrate complete mastery of the technique. Therefore, take things slowly. One moment of brilliant show vs tell in your first story can be used as a stepping stone as you gradually become more adept at explaining emotions through body language, actions, speech etc. And it’s ok to fail. In fact, we can learn much more through failure than we can through success.

Once you’ve got the hang of the technique you’re trying to perfect, taking things to the extremes can be really useful. In the show vs tell example, there are definitely times when it is better for a story to tell the reader exactly what is going on. However by taking things to the extreme, you ignore this more rational approach and strip out all adjectives, adverbs and anything else that isn’t taken straight from the show vs tell handbook. Think of it like stretching a piece of elastic. You need to go a little overboard so that you eventually end up exactly where you want to be.

Step 5 – Weaving it all Together

If you take each element of writing separately and practise it in isolation, then the theory is that you should improve your ‘muscle memory’ so that when you write a story without focusing on that particular element, the improvements you’ve made will hold.

However, that may be the case initially but, unfortunately, any learned skill has a habit of deteriorating over time if you don’t keep it up. Therefore, it’s important to revisit step one on a periodical basis. You might want to rephrase it as ‘relearning your weaknesses’ since your weaknesses might have changed and things that you considered strengths might not be as correspondingly strong in the light of improvements made elsewhere.

Practice, then, is a constant, continual requirement and whether you spend 10,000 hours or 100,000 hours on trying to perfect your craft, perfection will always be elusively out of reach. Perfection isn’t the right goal, though. We should all strive to be satisfied with being better than we were before. That way, it doesn’t matter if you feel encumbered by lack of qualifications or imagination or talent. And if you put your heart and mind to it and put in a sensible amount of practice, everyone can learn to write engaging, entertaining stories.


PS - I imagine that there are several mis-spellings of 'practice' and 'practise' above. I guess this is just something else to add to my list of things to practise.

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