We all want to improve at something. For me, well, it’s a lot of things, but writing is high on the list. While I believe talent exists and comes naturally, and you’re born with it or not, I also believe that’s only a very small percentage of what makes up any skill. Everything else is practice and education, and those things can overcome a lack of talent and might even root out what’s already hidden inside you. Buy you have to go in and find it.
So, how are you practicing and learning to do just that?
I have to ask myself this pretty frequently. I have been a reader on and off my whole life. It’s been a pretty big joke with just about anyone who actually knows me, I’m a writer who doesn’t read. But that’s never actually been true, I’ve just always been VERY SLOW. I’ve almost never not been in the middle of reading something, the thing is, I actually read every word on the page. I do NOT skim, I give every character a unique voice, I give the narration a voice, and I break down the sentences I love, the passages that make me feel something, the moments that slap me in the face with a twist. I ask myself how the author did that, I think back on what happened in a story to get me there, how the words are configured to really illicit a laugh or a tear. That’s how I read. And it’s SLOW.
But it’s also how I learn. I’m choosing books and short stories that I enjoy and are good technically so I can critique them and break them down. I read for pleasure nowadays too in a much lighter way, but everything I read is an opportunity for education.
Similarly, I’m taking “classes” and reading books on craft and creativity. Right now I’m working through Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass and reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. I’m doing these things in my “free time” instead of fucking off and doom scrolling. More education. During lunch I throw on a YouTube video about self publishing or craft and learning your audience. More education. I take a few minutes every day to scroll through the writing groups I’m part of to ask, read, and answer questions about storytelling and world building. More education.
And even the actual brain-off activities I’m engaging in are helping. Listening to comedy podcasts while doing chores helps my brain better understand humor and watching good TV helps my brain better understand storytelling.
And above all this, I write. I spend a full work week plus overtime outlining, writing, revising, editing, proofing, reading back, and starting all over. I’m learning from myself, which I couldn’t do without all the outside influences of course, but I’m flexing the muscle that makes the words. I’m doing sentence reps and paragraph pull ups and drinking sprint shakes.
I don’t say all this to mimic those dudes who tell you you have to hustle all the time, who say they earned their lamborghini by working 80 hours a week and never taking no for an answer. I’m just saying you have to do something, and you have to put your all into that something, whatever it is. I could read whatever, skim it, and then add it to my list of finished books or I could let a podcast play in the background while I play videogames. And really there IS merit to those things, they’re fine and acceptable and fun, BUT only doing those things isn’t enough to get better. You won’t get better by planning and never doing, and you won’t get better by staying in your little bubble and doing what you’ve always done, and you definitely won’t get better by wishing you already were. Trust me, tried that. Nothing happened.
I’m not a master of any of this, of education, writing, motivation, hustling. I just know what’s been working for me. I’m smart enough to look back at the last three years and see where I failed and succeeded and to know how those failures and successes came about. And I know when I’m getting better, and by god I definitely am. It’s all down to two things: practice and education. I’m not perfect, never perfect, not even great, but certainly better.