I’m sure you’ve heard that it takes 10,000 hours of doing something to become an expert at it. That’s oversimplified, of course; some things take more time to master than others, and some people take more time to master things than others do. Some people practice a thing relentlessly for years and still suck at it. But as a general truism, the more you do something, the better you get at it.
There are several reasons for this. Here are three:
- You develop good reflexes for the thing and you can see a bigger picture of what you’re doing – farther ahead, more details at a time, and more of the larger context it fits into.
- You make all the stupid basic mistakes and learn to avoid them most of the time. You make more interesting mistakes and learn even more each time you screw up.
- You get bored, so you try new things. Then you get bored with the new things you tried because you were bored, and you see details you had missed in what you were bored with at first. Then you get bored with some of those details and fiddle with them. Then you get bored with that… The longer you do it, the more you get past the stuff that people who are well experienced in your craft are bored with.
What’s going to get you writing a lot? It really helps if you look forward to every chance you get to write. But everyone has to write from time to time, and everyone can build up writing skill by writing two kinds of things:
1. Whatever you want, no matter how weird and unpublishable and un-show-around-able it is. Even if it’s for an audience of one, do it. Do you think athletes only use their muscles in competition? If you think you’d enjoy writing something, do it. The important thing is that you need to enjoy the act of writing it. I’ve been telling you to focus on your readers, but do this for yourself. It pays off. And it’s still about learning the craft so you can tickle your readers the right way.
2. Whatever you have to. Things you have to write for work. Papers for classes. Things you have committed to writing. Things other people are relying on getting from you. Desire is a great motivator, but so is fear. Even if you have a hard time getting around to writing what you really want (everyone’s psychology is strange and complex, a fact you should take advantage of as a writer), you have to get around to writing what you’re committed to writing, because there will be consequences if you don’t. So promise. Pitch ideas, sign contracts, make commitments. This also forces you to focus on your reader.
These two things are not mutually exclusive. You may want to write a book but find that the only way you can motivate yourself enough to do it is to commit to publishing it live on your blog a chapter at a time. Some of us actually enjoy writing on assignment – you have an audience to please and toy with and you want to see how you can do it this time.
It also brings your writing into contact with other people. It’s a conversation, remember? And it helps to have people around who can show you the way forward into new territory. I sang with a choir for fifteen years, and although I had taken voice lessons before then, my voice improved greatly over that time just by singing so many different things with good singers and a good conductor.
You also need to analyze what you do. I used to teach test prep for standardized tests (SAT, GRE, LSAT, GMAT). It was a general truism that you could improve your performance by about 10% with practice. But you could improve your performance more if you looked at the results of your practice rounds and figured out why you made the mistakes you made.
With writing, what this all boils down to is that you need to write a lot. A lot. Write all the time. Write things for fun. Write things that you don’t think anyone will ever want to read. Write things you think lots of people will want to read. Write so much that you really don’t care if some part you liked gets deleted or reworded. Write until you build a mountain of writing, with each word or phrase as individually dispensable as a speck of dirt.
And every so often, look back at stuff you wrote a while ago – far enough back that you don’t really remember it – and read it. You might really like some of it; take note of what and see how you can keep doing it. You will probably be embarrassed and annoyed by some of it; that will help you build a reflex to avoid doing the things that embarrass and annoy you.
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One of my favourite poets says something like “reading one’s past work is like smelling one’s own farts – more interesting than unpleasant”