Generally we also have to keep practicing. Although I’ve been making a living as a writer for more than 30 years, I’m not dumb enough to think I know everything about the written word.
Professional musicians and sports figures still practice. Writers should, too.
For some people that might mean a set minimum: 10 pages per week, say, or 500 words per day. Others might use a prompt from a writing website (“In 350 words, describe your first love and how it ended – or didn’t end”). Some writers love challenges like National Blog Posting Month or National Novel Writing Month.
If you’re doing this for a living, your daily work could be considered your practice. But as noted, even musicians and sports giants – men and women who pack stadiums, arenas and concert halls – don’t just phone it in. They keep their skills honed.
Use it or lose it. Writers who want to keep improving should keep that old saw in mind.
How it looks for me
My own non-work “practice” takes several forms:
Writing reviews for the newspaper. I do both theater and restaurant reviews, and both are great frugal hacks (take a friend to lunch or to a show and get in free yourself!). But they’re a very different type of non-fiction than the kind that pays the bills.
You have to take the essence of an experience and explain why it did or didn’t work, in a relatively small space. It’s important to know something about the play or the food ahead of time, which means research. And it’s essential that you back up your opinions with reasoned, reasonable explanations.
Blog writing. I have an eponymous personal website, where I write about whatever comes up that day: money, midlife, disability, technology, frugality, love, anger, pop culture, you name it.
Then there’s this blog, whose goal is to encourage writers (and readers) to appreciate words. Blog writing is different than writing for pay because I can choose to put more of myself into it and I get to pick all my own topics.
A writing newsletter. My goal is to put one out per week. Still working on that.
Being a writing coach. Once I’ve read someone’s work, I need to come up with a diagnosis of what the trouble is and also some strategies to fix the issue(s). These aren’t just bulleted lists, but rather mini-essays of “here’s what I like about your work and here’s what frustrates me” or “your strengths are A, B and C but you’re too timid about X, Y and Z.”
In that sense, it’s a bit like reviewing. My favorite part is trying to give the writer the tools to fix what’s wrong vs. saying, “Do it my way and you’ll do fine.” My goal is not to keep them on a string for weeks or months, but rather to have them get in, get out and get on with it.
The music of the words
Lately it’s been a challenge to balance all these things, especially since I write all day (and sometimes into the night) in order to make a living. At times the last thing I want to do is more writing.
Some day perhaps I’ll find that mythical work-life balance; today is not that day, and tomorrow’s not looking good, either.
To stay motivated about self-improvement, I keep in mind what acclaimed pianist Murray Perahia said about practice:
“(It) should always be fun. In other words: Think musically, think in phrases, try to incorporate the technical work with the musical work; then I think you can have a good time.”
Re-interpreting that for writers:
Keep practicing the technical skills (e.g., sentence structure, transitions, strong beginnings and strong conclusions) and incorporating them into the music of the words.
Whether you’re trying to write a novel in a month or 500 words in one day, your goal should be to have fun.
Or, at least, to enjoy what you’ve accomplished. You probably already know that writing isn’t always fun. Pro athletes and musicians may not enjoy every minute of every day, either – but at the end of those days, they’re still doing what they love.
Writers: How do you practice?