Practical Steps to Improve Your Craft

How to Practice in the Right Ways

(and why it matters)

Everything you know how to do in your life you had to learn. Typing, driving, reading, using a smartphone. They all took time to master. They required practice. And, whether or not you realize it, the ways you practiced determined how quickly you learned and how much skill you gained. 

When we typically think of practice we assume that the more we do something the better we’ll get at it. We can see that that’s not true when we consider lifting weights. If you pick up a set of 10-pound weights (I’m a weakling, ok?) and lift them over and over, day in and day out, you will initially gain some muscle (provided you’re doing it right and not injuring yourself). However, assuming your goal is to build muscles, that “practice” won’t suffice if you don’t increase the number of repetitions or get a heavier weight. That’s because you eventually reach a new level of homeostasis and, when that happens, you need to change tactics to keep gaining muscle. 

The same is true for your writing. Our bodies, physically and mentally, are inclined to strive for equilibrium. In order to change that equilibrium, we have to choose to work out (else we happily stay the same forever). So, we lift weights or practice new skills like how to write a beautiful sentence or tell an entertaining story. We evaluate our current skill level compared to where we want to be, develop successful practice techniques, and continue to challenge ourselves in the process. 

Anders Ericsson, who has spent his career studying competitive athletes, musicians, chess champions, and memory masters, has developed a learning strategy fundamentally different from how we typically consider acquiring new abilities. His strategies, described in his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (co-written with Robert Pool), discuss the right types of practice that we all can implement in order to gain the skills we desire. Just ask Dan McLaughlin who created a plan to become a professional golfer with no previous training. Though he may not have reached his goal due to injuries, his plan is a testament to the best learning practices. 

In Ericsson’s words: “In pretty much any area of human endeavor, people have a tremendous capacity to improve their performance, as long as they train in the right way.” 

How to learn

The basic and most helpful method to learn a new skill is to try something new, make mistakes, correct those mistakes, and slowly build upon that skill over time. You have to do the work, evaluate where you fall short, and improve based on that analysis if you want to become an expert. Unfortunately, systems like the current education system in the US are more focused on knowing than they are on doing. We, therefore, have to come up with our own practice techniques to gain the skills we desire. 

Luckily, Ericsson’s system helps students of any subject area think about how to practice in the right ways: by using deliberate practice.   

  • Purposeful practice is practice in which someone tries very hard to improve. It “has well-defined, specific goals” that are long-term, focused, involve constant feedback, and get you outside your comfort zone on a continuous basis. 
  • “Deliberate practice is purposeful practice that knows where it is going and how to get there.” It requires the right teachers, the right mindset, full and conscious attention. It is purposeful and, most importantly, it is informed.

Writers Write

In my last post, I talked about how being a writer comes down to one thing: writing. Doing the work. That means deciding what you want to achieve with your writing and turning pro in order to achieve it. I’m going to assume you’re here because you want to become a professional writer (though, wanting to write and show no one is a fine goal too). 

Being a professional writer means you finish what you start, that you take your craft seriously and spend time learning, that you figure out the steps you need to take to get you where you want to go, and that you act upon those steps. 

It also means you make writing a habit. That you do what you can to write as much as you can in a week (bonus points for at least 300 words a day, though points don’t matter to anyone but you). Habits eliminate the question of whether or not you’ll do something. They allow you to make decisions ahead of time so that you don’t revert back to your old routine and forgo the necessary work. 

You can’t expect you’ll always want to do the work because it isn’t easy. It’s most often a thankless, solo experience that takes a lot out of you. Developing habits—like setting out your gym clothes and going every morning when you wake up—make it easier when the time comes to put in the work. 

And, as seen with lifting weights, you can’t just throw more effort at something. At least not forever. You’ve got to figure out what the right habits are and work to develop them. You have to get outside your comfort zone because, as Ericsson and Pool say in Peak, “If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.”

Writing Books

Generally speaking, if you want to write a book: 

  • Figure out your global goal. What is your book about? What do you want it to do?
  • Determine how you will accomplish that goal.
  • Why are you including the things you are? Do they help you achieve that goal?

If you want to be a professional writer, you’ve got to practice writing books (scenes, stories, chapters, articles, or whatever format you desire). And, you’ve got to develop a training method that will help you learn how to do so (and how to do so well) in order to satisfy your readers. You could take the steps above and apply them over and over hoping to improve over time. Or, you could follow the training techniques below. 

How to Practice Writing

How do you develop a system to specifically practice writing? Tennis players can learn from the best teachers. Chess players can study the grandmasters. Musicians can listen to how a piece should be played and go through the sheet music note by note, correcting errors along the way. But what about writing? So much goes into it. 

At the surface level, practicing in the right way means you:

  • Identify the experts
  • Figure out what they do that makes them so good (read their work)
  • Figure out training techniques that allow you to do it too
  • Do the work
  • Evaluate where you have come up short, rework the problem, and try all over again

But if all it takes is figuring out who the experts are and doing what they do, why isn’t everyone a great writer? Because it takes effort. And the level of focus required to bring your skill levels as close as possible to the experts (without copying what they write because that’s not the goal) is time-consuming and tedious. 

Luckily for us, in the same way that artists learn to paint by copying the greats, we can take the stories we love and learn to write our own from them. 

Know that the “right” activities should:

  • Get you outside your comfort zone (ask you to stretch yourself)
  • Offer immediate feedback on performance
  • Be similar to how experts became such (meaning, similar to their practices – read On Writing and you’ll get a clear picture of how Stephen King became an expert, for example)
  • Develop the skills that experts in the field possess

The “shortcut” process to deliberate practice when writing is to get yourself a teacher who can give you the right exercise to practice certain skills. They can evaluate where you came up short and help you stay on track to improve. 

Directly from Peak, a good teacher:

  • Will be able to identify where you fell short and give you specific activities on how to improve
  • Knows the best order to learn things
  • Understands and can demonstrate the proper way to perform various skills
  • Can provide useful feedback 
  • Can devise practice activities designed to overcome particular weaknesses
  • Should be accomplished in the field
  • Should know how to teach in that field
  • (And as an aside, you may need to change teachers as your skill grows)

Develop Your Writing System

It’s also ok to not have a teacher. It’s still possible to learn the skills you need. Generally speaking, your system should have you:

  • Pick stories you want to emulate (or scenes. This is because you’ll be able to learn many skills faster when writing short pieces, but you’ll still be writing a contained story so the skills overlap)
  • Evaluate what those stories do well (what is the global story accomplishing in your own words?)
  • Visualize your story doing the same
  • Write your story
  • Analyze where you fell short (get feedback of some sort)
  • Try again
  • Repeat

Basically, you try to do something you cannot do by coming up with your own exercises. You pay attention to what you get wrong and correct those mistakes every time. In other words: “Focus. Feedback. Fix it.” 

Make modifications to any practice system depending on the type of story you want to write, its length, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, and for the audience who will be reading it. 

My practice looks something like that of Benjamin Franklin (which I learned from Peak). He essentially found articles he wanted to emulate. He wrote down their essence sentence by sentence, let time pass, and tried to rewrite the article from his hints. When he was done he was able to compare his draft to the original to evaluate where he had come up short. His goal was to create his own articles as well-written as the originals. He then did the same using verse to increase his vocabulary followed by mixing up the sentences so he could learn how to format an argument. 

My intended process (of course everything is modified in action):

Set a goal. If the story I’m studying does a particularly good job at the narrative device or creating active characters I try to make that my goal. Otherwise, I work on a skill I’m having trouble with. Anything from dialogue to the setting to a decent premise. 

Find a story I want to emulate. I start with short stories because I want to learn a lot of skills in a short period of time. And, I find stories that accomplish whatever goal I’ve set.

Evaluate the story. I analyze what the story is accomplishing and how it does so in as much detail as possible. I use The Story Grid methodology as well as the skills I learned from AP English. 

Write out what the global story is accomplishing. In my own words, I figure out and write down the controlling idea, premise, conflict, or whatever else I need to in order to understand what’s happening. (Since my goal isn’t the same as Franklin’s, I don’t go sentence by sentence.)

Write the original story out in my own words. After sufficient time has passed and I’ve forgotten the basics of the story, I try to write it out myself. 

Compare my draft to the original. This shows my weaknesses. It also asks me to evaluate what the original author did and why so that I learn the mindset myself. 

Write my own story using an element I wanted to learn from the original. If I were focused on dialogue, I’d write a new story of my own that focuses on that task. I then compare what I’ve created to what I wanted to and edit until I feel comfortable sharing it. This is where my goal comes back into play and specifically in my own work.

Get feedback from another writer or editor. Feedback is invaluable because it lets me know what readers think and feel about what I’ve written. 

Then edit once more. I repeat the process as much as necessary to get the story up to a workable draft and try to submit it to different places. 

When I feel like I’ve sufficiently learned enough craft to stop analyzing other author’s stories (which I may keep doing as long as I’m alive), I’m going to start a process of writing a short story every week. The goal is to build my skills, to learn the craft, and to do the work. Then, I’ll use the smaller stories to build novels, screenplays, etc., which I’ll be able to do because I’m not forgetting the global component when writing short stories (and I’ll come up with a new training tactic once that day comes). 

Writing a short story every week (or a scene, chapter, whatever)*: 
  • Day 1: Think globally. Consider what you want the story to be about. Why do you want to tell it?
  • Day 2: Consider the core of your story. What’s the purpose? What do you want to achieve by telling it? Use that to develop a premise and characters that will struggle the most with the necessary actions. 
  • Day 3: Write out the necessary scenes that will prove your point. 
  • Day 4: Write a draft. 
  • Day 5: Evaluate that draft. Write down any changes you think you need to make and why. 
  • Day 6: Rewrite your story. 
  • Day 7: Complete a final edit by yourself and send the work to someone else. 

Keep in mind that, because of the amount of effort developing skills takes, it’s ok to start with shorter sessions and work your way up. It’s ok to nap during the day (yes, you read that right). Just make sure your sessions have clearly defined goals. That you develop the right habits. That you maintain the right mindset. Do the work. 

*Again, modify these techniques to best suit you. Perhaps you already know story structure and have written some successful novels. Try writing a scene every three days or every day. See what you can accomplish by going into your writing knowing what you want to achieve, evaluating your work, and fixing your mistakes. 

Why practice in this way?

If the goal of professional writing is to earn a living from your work, you have to satisfy your readers. To satisfy your readers you should understand craft. Your stories should make a promise and fulfill that promise in a surprising but inevitable way. They should keep readers reading and, ultimately, they should beg to be shared with new audiences. 

In practicing this way, you reduce the amount of time it will take to write stories that work. You’ll internalize story structure and be able to apply it in new and exciting ways. You’ll learn from the best and you’ll take those skills with you and continue to build upon them every time you write something new. 

Put Your Work Out There

That doesn’t get you off the hook from one other thing: sharing your work. If you have a teacher, you’ve already got a built-in place to submit. If you don’t, research. A critical part of the learning process is learning where you failed. It’s hard to do that for yourself on pieces you’re invested in and are close to. Resources like The Story Grid absolutely help (as do our editors), but outside feedback is necessary. 

Though taking criticism is also a learned skill, it does get easier and it, too, can be practiced.

You Determine your own Potential

No one alive can guess at the potential you possess. So long as you maintain your motivation and keep pushing past the plateaus of learning that will come up, there is no limit to what you can achieve.  Ericsson and Pool remind us: “How much you improve is up to you.” So, develop your writing practice. Become the professional you want to be. Write. 

About the Author

Rebecca Monterusso helps writers get their stories on the page and confidently share them. Her podcast, A Story That Works, and website, Creativity Through Constraints, work together to help writers figure out and solve their problems with starting to write, finishing their stories, and sharing their work. She is a writer, world traveler, and self-proclaimed story nerd. She believes that stories are the only way to change the world, which makes writers mighty powerful people. Find out more at www.CreativityThroughConstraints.com.

Comments (14)
Author Rebecca Monterusso

14 Comments

Stephanie Salter says:

Thanks, Rebecca. I am a playwright, and I am starting the 7 day challenge for a one act I am writing.

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Rebecca Monterusso says:

You’re welcome, Stephanie. I’m really glad to help. Let me know if the process works for you.

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Pete Dudley says:

The book “The Bestseller Code” would be a source of what a author might use to evaluate their writing, to learn what they should be practicing. Bestselling books are generally books that people want to read, so it’s a good idea to study them. For instance, the protagonists in bestsellers express their “wants” and “needs” more frequently than the protagonists do in unpopular fiction. The same for abbreviations, bestselling authors abbreviate more words than do seldom read authors. A good practice would be to check ones writing for these and similar aspects. Do it enough times and you learn not to write in an unpopular style in the first place or first draft.

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Rebecca Monterusso says:

Hi Pete, thanks for reading my post. I have read “The Bestseller Code” and I recognize that it has its merits. Thank you for bringing it up.

There are computational analysis tools out there (like https://fictionary.co) that writers can try for themselves. However, I think they are best used to analyze your novel for itself (especially after the process of learning the craft from other stories). The reason is, if you start looking only at what the bestsellers do, you get into the salability mindset rather than studying the craft. That, in turn, prevents you from learning the mindset authors used to write their books and from understanding why they made the choices they did. And that limits your understanding of the craft, which limits your stories. Unfortunately, there isn’t a formula to create a bestseller, just a mastery of story craft, which is best learned from studying the practice techniques authors used rather than their finished products.

It’s like using Amazon algorithms. Though it’s necessary (in a way) to know whether or not you can sell your novel before you start, you may drive yourself crazy in the process. It’s far better to write a novel you love, with great skill, than to write something just because it’s popular at the time (though doing both might be a golden opportunity).

Additionally, you run the risk of losing your own writer’s voice if you try to copy the style of bestsellers. And, choosing a bestseller simply because it is well-read doesn’t take your own taste into account. That’s why I recommend finding stories you want to emulate, or stories you can use to practice shoring up weaknesses, and then move on to the thing only you could write. In that way you’re developing your own style, technique, and mastery of structure.

You bring up a good point. There are things bestsellers have in common. The question that comes up, and is missing from “The Bestesller Code,” is why that is the case. I believe digging deeper into the practice and habits of writer’s provides a better answer than studying their finished works.

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Pete Dudley says:

I loved your post about practice and bought the book you referred to. Then I wondered what I should practice to make my writing better. I thought of best selling books.

I think we are in agreement. I don’t want to even emulate writers in my genre and I’m not reading any as I write my novels. Recently I listened to the Audible versions of two of Shannon Mayer’s fantasy series. Not my genre. I choose her because she is a self published author who’s killing it. Her stories are fun and I think the best part is the humor she gives to the two main characters. I was using humor before, now I’m adding more.

Regarding the “Best Seller Code” results, one example I mentioned was the protagonist who expresses their wants and needs. They have more agency than “heroes” who do not do that. If you don’t want anything, you don’t have much of a Hero’s Journey to follow and/or you aren’t facing many obstacles. In my writer’s groups I hear “stories” in which the so called hero doesn’t seem to want anything. They’re totally boring.

Why would abbreviations be more prevalent in best selling books? I figure it’s because they make the story move faster. They also cut down the length of sentences, which makes the books easier to read.

In my novels I use every abbreviation, unless I purposely want the dialog or character’s thoughts to emphasis a point. I also might use it to show someone’s attitude. For example, my heroine’s attorney, who is trying to put her in a subservient position.

Many other Best Selling results show that those books were written using the principles of Story Grid. The authors may not of known them, but they followed them.

I love your enthusiasm for Story.

Pete

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Rebecca Monterusso says:

Pete, I figured we were mostly in agreement, saying similar things in different ways. I only brought it up because this post, in particular, is about the kind of deep practice it takes to learn craft rather than just the results you get from it. Many newer writers don’t understand the difference.

As an aside, it’s not bad to study books in your genre. Doing a far and wide study is useful to any writer trying to become a professional, but forgetting your genre entirely (especially when you’re starting out) will mean you don’t understand the obligatory scenes and conventions. I hope that writers are choosing to write in a particular genre because they love it and not because it’s the next hot thing.

The key is knowing what makes a book work. The only reason I don’t necessarily follow “The Bestseller Code” is because I think it doesn’t teach the underlying reasons for the success. It would be very easy to tell a new writer to just model their book after a bestseller and that that will guarantee them success. What you and I know is that it’s much deeper than that. We have to understand the reasons why authors make the choices they do (because it serves the story, which relates back to craft) not just that they do it.

For example, giving a character wants and needs gives them agency to act. It asks them to make decisions and the decisions they make when under pressure to do so show who they are at their core. What many new writers don’t get is that characters aren’t just like regular people. A story isn’t built around the everyday moments of life when we wait for things to happen. It’s easy to tell someone to give your character a want/need and to say that it will make a story better. But, the want/need has to be a part of a deeper thread. It should also have a purpose in the story. If you don’t study stories in depth, giving your character a want/need might not help a story that otherwise isn’t working.

The same goes for abbreviations. Dialogue isn’t talking as we do in normal life. There’s a structure to it. Telling someone to write with abbreviations, rather than teaching them to do what serves the story, is doing them a disservice.

That writers write with Story Grid tools (whether or not they study them) is a testament to their craft and to their understanding of life (and using Story as a metaphor for life). They didn’t get there without study of some sort.

I hope I’m not coming off as pedantic. I know you’ve studied this stuff and are offering extra examples to study from. I only caution newer writers because many look for the non-existent formula to write a bestseller. You an I know it doesn’t exist, so I want to clarify why it’s important to study at a deeper level.

I appreciate your input, it’s always good to get different perspective and to learn what helps other writers (especially ones who know how to study in the right ways).

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Pete Dudley says:

It’s impossible to have a post or comment that’s a fit for every writer.

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Peter Tittes says:

According to research cited in “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise”, deliberate practice that pushes your skill level, results in growth in the parts of the brain that are used to perform that skill. So I’m thinking that doing serious writing will alter the brain in a way that makes good writing easier to create. In my experience it is happening to me. Writing a good fifteen hundred word scene is much easier now, than it was two years ago or even last year.

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Rebecca Monterusso says:

In a way, yes. Knowledge is cumulative and builds upon what you already know. That’s why you have to challenge yourself more and more to keep learning. It’s similar to why 10 pound weights become too easy and you need to pick up a heavier set.

I’m glad writing is getting easier for you. I challenge you to keep deepening your practice, to keep learning and challenging what you think you know.

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Peter Tittes says:

People who devote significant time to serious writing and editing will grow more gray matter, more neurons, in the areas of the brain that are used to do that work. It’s beyond mere knowledge. Their brains will become better at writing. Stephen King writes his first drafts in three months, which to me would be ridiculous. I believe it’s because I don’t have decades of writing every day and he does.

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rsmonterusso says:

I think you’re exactly right, Pete. I don’t know if I could write a first draft in 3 months, but I’d hope that, by the time I have as much practice as Stephen King, I will be able to.

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