How Do You Get There From Here?

Practice makes perfect.

Whatever you choose to call it—aphorism, adage, maxim, idiom, cliché—that saying is largely accepted as truth. But it’s not particularly true. I will certainly concede that practice will make you better at what you are trying to do, but to say it will get you to perfection assumes that you know what to do to achieve perfection.

A quick example might better demonstrate what I mean. Right now, I have achieved a certain level of skill as a writer. Let’s call that level, X. So I write. And I keep writing. Sometimes I don’t do as well as I could, and the story I produce is, oh maybe, X-2. Some days I’m really on my game and I might produce a story that as good as X+2. But most of the time, the stories I write are an X. If I continue to practice, practice, practice, at some point in the future I’ll be a better writer—maybe X+1. But as a writer, my goal is to be a much better writer…let’s call that level Y.

Is practice enough to get me there? I could explain and equivocate, but the answer is, NO. Because at some point you need to acquire the knowledge to know what your weaknesses are AND the knowledge to fix them.

So think back to your childhood. I’ll use the example of learning to throw a football. When I was three or four years old, I started watching football with my dad. When I wanted to learn to play, he bought me a shiny, blue Nerf football. So how did I start? I walked outside and gave a mighty heave. The ball probably flew a foot or so. Now, if I’d relied solely on practice to get better, I’m sure I would have discovered how to hold the ball—eventually. I might even have been able to get some distance on a throw. But I never would have been any good. But that’s not what happened. After that first toss left me frustrated, my father picked up the football and started to show me the basics.

That is to say… he taught me.

While practice is the most fundamental tool we have to get better, it will only get us so far. We have to work to improve our skills by learning. We must learn what we do right, what we do wrong, what we do inconsistently. But more importantly we must learn what other people do, whether it works for them, whether we think it will work for us.

I won’t even try to count the ways to do this. There are classes, workshops, books, magazines, websites, critique groups (where there are writers better than you), forums discussion groups, honest friends…

I need to decide what I will do this year to get closer to Y.

What about you? What are your plans, in the next year, to get better at your craft?

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. Tony Noland says:

    This year I’m going to set a weekly wordcount goal for myself. Daily wordcounts are hard for me to hit, given the craziness of my daily life. A weekly goal, of X thousand words, though… that I can manage.

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  2. Rob Diaz says:

    I am going to read more. I find the less I read, the less I write. And while quantity does not equate to quality, quantity can help to increase quality when coupled with writing groups and/or beta readers (my favorite critique method).

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  3. Start over. Does that count?

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    1. Rob Diaz says:

      I would say starting over counts.

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  4. vanillabean says:

    Good thoughts! Although sometimes when I read over something I’ve written I feel more like I’m starting from X-5! With X being where I thought the quality of my writing should be and the X-5 being what actually comes out on the page… As for plans for the year, I started out the year by working through the book The Artist’s Way with a group of four friends (conducted by facebook of course!) and by committing to meet with a local writer friend about once a week to drink coffee, run writing prompts, and talk craft together. Those have both been really good motivators/ “improvers” for me. I have been thinking about setting a weekly word count goal like Tony mentioned but haven’t completely decided what a manageable but stretching word count goal would be…

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  5. sharipratt says:

    I wrote 3 of the most fabulous books anyone had ever read. X! And when I found out they weren’t quite that fabulous, X-5, I listened to what others said about them and began the revision process (again, after a long sequence of revising again.) Joined a writing class, something I haven’t done for decades. The teacher is wonderful and I’m being reminded of the standards of writing which I’m in process of applying to the revisions. X-3. Not giving up. X+1. Still aiming for Y.

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  6. Prairie L. Markussen says:

    I think I’ll try going to more conferences, and just be around writer-ly people. That always inspires me to do more, read more, write more, and talk more about writing . . . which ultimately makes me a better writer. The AWP is always awesome, but I’d like to find less expensive and more local conferences/workshops/talks to check out. That’s my goal!

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