Shaquille O’Neal was one of the greatest basketball players of all time, but he had one glaring weakness: he was a poor free-throw shooter. While he was a dominant force in most other aspects of the game—one of the most dominant of all time—his inability to shoot free throws was so glaring that many teams adopted the strategy of fouling him on purpose, sending him to the line for a chance a free points because they would rather take the chances that he would miss than let him try to score against their defense.
Now, Shaq knew he had this weakness. He worked to correct it by shooting many, many practice free throws and by working with a plethora of shooting coaches. One offseason, it was reported that he was shooting thousands of free-throws a day. His coach, however, was not impressed.
“If he’s shooting them with incorrect form,” his coach, Phil Jackson, said (I’m paraphrasing here), “he’s not going to get better. He’s only reinforcing bad habits.”
This story, I believe relates not just to basketball, but to most skills, writing included. The quality—and intentionality—of your practice is just as—if not more—important as your volume. As I wrap up my series on new year’s resolutions and writing goals (part 1 here; part 2 here), I want to look at the types of goals we set as writers, and whether these goals are the best approach to improving at our craft.
Most writers, as I detailed in the previous posts in this series, set word count or writing time goals. Write a certain amount of words or a certain amount of time per day, and your writing will improve. If you want to be a writer, you have to write, the common platitude goes. And so we write. We add to our work in progress, slog through our first draft of our novel, but do we really improve as writers? Are we improving at our craft? Are we better today than were yesterday? Or, are we, like Shaq, reinforcing bad habits?
If we answer the question honestly, I think we will find that most of us are not growing as much as we could. We have random spikes when hit on something great, and, occasionally, we might actually learn something, but that growth is often random and passive rather than intentional. Imagine how much better we’d be if we were purposeful in our practice and worked to address our weaknesses.
That is the fallacy in the 10-thousand-hour rule. Instead of shooting 10000 free throws, shoot 1000 shots sitting in a chair, shooting with your wrist and working on your follow through. Master that, then work on aligning your elbow. Figure out which part of your form is off and isolate your practice to focus on that aspect.
There are two types of practice: practice that mimics performance, and practice that builds the necessary skills and attributes which are necessary to perform successfully. In writing—and this is true not just for aspiring writers, but for the way writing is taught from elementary school through the university level—we tend to focus on the performance aspect, the final piece intended for publication, at the expense of the skill and attribute-building aspects. This sets writing up in opposition to many other fields where skill and attribute training reign supreme. No one questions the utility of the speed bag for building hand speed and coordination for boxers, yet no boxer goes into the ring and tries to hit his or her opponent with the same technique that they use to hit the bag. Serious chess players do not just practice by playing games, either against each other or against a computer, they work at problems and exercises designed to isolate the strategy needed in certain situations. So why don’t writers, by and large, spend their writing time practicing their similes, working on their sentence structure, and their meter, their dialogue? Perhaps we should.
Recently, I spent an evening completing a writing exercise where I had to list and define as many portmanteaus as I could within a certain amount of time. This list, which was based off of an exercise James Joyce would do, was not designed to produce a publishable piece of writing, but it allowed me to improve at a device which was not one I commonly use in my writing. I expanded my toolbox, and actually wrote a passage in one of my works-in-progress recently that had two portmanteaus in it.
One exercise that I often suggest to young writers is mimicking a writer whom they admire. Try to write a paragraph in the style of that author, about any subject. Focus on the model’s sentence structure, literary devices, etc. This exercise is unlikely to produce a publishable piece of writing (unless you, unintentionally, create a brilliant satire), but it will make you more aware of any author’s style and allow you to begin to critically evaluate your own. There is a great passage in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in which she mimics the style of famous male and female authors of the 19th Century. Internalizing author authors’ style will expand your own and make you a better writer.
Similarly, W. H. Auden would give his students poetry exercises where they would have to use certain combinations of metrical feet in each line and to use different types of rhymes at proscribed points in the poem (see picture below). This exercise was not designed to produce great poetry—and if you look at Auden’s poetry, he does not often combine that many different meters in a single poem—but it is designed to teach students the various possibly combinations of rhyme and meter. It is similar to the athletic exercises delineated above.
Choosing which exercises to do—which skills to focus on—requires you to analyze your own writing. Internalize the feedback you get from others and read yourself critically. Maybe you are prone to simile and want to practice metaphor or allusion; perhaps you want to work on writing realistic dialogue; maybe your writing is too structured and you want to loosen it up and make it more natural; maybe you write stream of conscious and want to gain more control over your style. Whatever your goal, whatever your weakness as a writer, there are exercises that you can do to improve each of these skills—and any other area you on which you desire to work.
There are exercises you can do to improve your attributes as well. Engage in speed writing to see how many words you can put on a page in a given amount of time; read the dictionary to improve your vocabulary (Both John Gardner and Chris Bohjalian as a warm up exercise before you actually start your writing session for your work in progress). Diagram a complex sentence (say one of Faulkner’s famously long ones) to gain a better understanding of grammar.
By engaging in these types of skill-and-attribute-building exercises, you will improve as a writer. You must choose your exercises intentionally; you must analyze your strengths and weaknesses honestly—which is hard—but you will improve faster than if you just write for the sake of hitting a word count goal.
Now, engaging in this type of practice may seem like it might slow your progress. You will likely end up with fewer finished pieces, and your word count totals on the pieces you intend to publish might suffer in comparison to what you’re doing now, but the ones you do finish, will be better and you will notice improvement from one piece to the next as you build your writing toolbox.
Notice, that these exercises take time. You will still be working those 10 thousand hours, but 10000 hours will help you grow as a writer rather than just turning your wheels like Shaq with his free throws.