Want to be a better writer? You’re not alone. Each of us wants to have pride in the words we put into the world. And we all have room to improve. That's where intentional practice can help.
No one is born a great writer. I have yet to see babies do anything other than bang at keyboards or chew on pens.
Clearly, good writers learn the craft, and the best writers keep getting better.
So, how do you improve your writing craft? Should you drop everything and enroll in a Master of Fine Arts program? That’s one possibility, but not necessarily right for everyone. (I’d suggest you read Jane Friedman’s excellent book The Business of Being a Writer for a reasoned discussion of MFA programs.)
Courses, writing groups, and coaches offer valuable guidance. But you can also make remarkable progress by applying the principles of intentional practice. Just as musicians and athletes spend time drilling techniques, authors should add intentional practice to their writing regime.
1 - Choose a specific skill you want to improve
2 - Create a feedback tool to assess your progress
3 - Practice intently for a period of time
Choose a Specific Skill to Practice
If you ever took music lessons as a kid, you may remember the mental overwhelm of trying to juggle all the instructions in your head...
Count. Remember the positioning of your fingers. Sit up straight. Don’t rush. Use the pedal.
The key to intentional practice is choosing one thing to work on for a while. Over time, it becomes second nature, and you move on to the next skill.
Choose one aspect of the craft you’d like to strengthen, such as:
Realistic, compelling dialog
Strong, active verbs
Clear, concise explanations
You start with improving a weakness in your writing. For advice on what to fix, consider consulting a professional editor. Hire someone to edit a couple chapters and tell them that you’re looking for trends.
Software like Grammarly and ProWritingAid’s writing style check also offer useful feedback.
Don’t forget to practice your strengths as well.
Not sure what they are? Read past writing or look at what other people say about it. If there’s something you do well, intentional practice can strengthen that skill. (For advice on playing to your strengths, see Becca Syme’s excellent book Dear Writer, You Need to Quit.)
For example, I’m rotten at writing realistic dialog. But as a nonfiction author, it makes little sense for me to spend time improving that weakness. I’d rather double down on the clarity of my prose.
Find a Feedback Tool
When you practice with intention, you’ll need to know if you’re doing it right. Decide how you’re going to find and track your results.
For example, if want to work on clear, concise prose, your feedback tool might include a list of unnecessary words you frequently add. With this list in hand, use the Search capability in your software to find them. (Pressing Control-F brings up the Find/Search box in most software.)
Software like ProWritingAid or Grammarly can point out stylistic problems. Word’s grammar checker flags things as well. Start small; pick one short set of words or one aspect to correct. You can circle back through as many times as needed.
Now work on this thing every day for a week or more. You’ll know when you’re ready to move on.
If you’re writing a book, you can integrate intentional practice into your routine in one of the following ways:
—Every day, before you write, look at what you’ve done the day before and use your feedback tools to find the problematic verbs or sentence constructions. Fix them (that’s the practice), then start writing.
—If you don’t want to delay the writing, leave time at the end of your writing session to examine what you’ve done. Use your feedback tool to find and correct your target problems.
Important Safety Note: Don’t try to revise your words while you’re drafting. If the words are coming freely, don’t slow that down. Do the practice in revision.
When you consistently and repeatedly correct your problems or enhance your strengths, it will start to become a habit. Over time, these practices of revision may filter into your first drafts.
Intentional Practice in Other Areas of Your Writing
You can use this same approach to practice all kinds of writing skills.
- If you want more fluidity when drafting, practice freewriting with an app like The Most Dangerous Writing App, which deletes the text when you stop. (Please, don’t use it for your work in progress!)
- If you want to strengthen your plotting, sketch out the key plot points of every show you watch on Netflix and book you read. Once a day, analyze someone else’s plot and write it down. You'll start to spot the patterns of the pros.
- If your dialog is stilted, try reading the lines aloud to a mirror. Is that what your character would say? Or, read aloud the dialog of other writers you admire. What’s different?
The mind is a beautifully adaptable thing and intentional practice can harness its potential. The more you practice the behavior you want to strengthen, the better you will become. It’s like magic, only earned through intention, repetition, and effort.
Anne Janzer is a writer, business writing coach, and armchair cognitive science geek on a mission to help people do more of the writing that matters to them. She's the author of four books, including The Writer's Process and Writing to Be Understood. You can find her blog ramblings and online courses at AnneJanzer.com.