My original plan for a blog post was to discuss practice and how practice can help someone become a better writer. But I got sucked into the question of what is a good writer and now I’ve written two posts already without talking about how to become a better writer because I felt I needed to discuss how to become a better writer without knowing what qualities makes a writer better or worse?
In the first post in this series, I discussed different dimensions of writing that could be used to judge whether a person is a good writer—particularly use of punctuation and grammar, content, audience approval. In the second post in the series, I discussed internal, personal criteria for judging whether someone is a good writer—mainly, the writer’s own assessment of the process, with respect to both enjoyment and sense of accomplishment: if you can say that you feel a sense of accomplishment when writing, then maybe it makes sense to say you are a good writer. Similarly, if you enjoy writing, we might say you are a good writer. Acknowledging these criteria does not eliminate other criteria for judging good writing, rather it highlights some dimensions of what it means to be a writer that are important if you want to become a better writer.
In this post I will discuss being a good writer from a slightly different angle: not on the basis of the material you write, and not on the basis of your experience of writing, but on the basis of the impact of your writing process on your life. And in this discussion, I want to segue to the theme of practice and the role practice plays in becoming a better writer, which I had intended as the center of the posts I intended to write on how to become a better writer.
Healthy and Unhealthy Writing Practices
When I was in graduate school, repetitive strain injuries were just coming into wide recognition, and prevention was not yet understood. I knew several fellow students whose career in academia was interrupted or slowed by such injuries. That, I would say, is a good example of an unhealthy practice, and someone who has such a practice is not, according to this criterion, a good writer.
Another example of an unhealthy practice might be a practice that creates emotional difficulties. I’m thinking specifically about the explanation of procrastination offered by Neil Fiore, a psychologist who worked with doctoral candidates, in his book The Now Habit. Fiore’s basic argument is that procrastination arises from resentment—he writes about students who set expectations for their writing practice so high that there is no room in their lives for anything else. Such students, he argues, come to resent their work, which triggers procrastination. By contrast, students who maintain a better work-life balance are more likely to feel good about their work and therefore keep working.
There are other ways to have an unhealthy practice. If your writing depends on drugs or drinking, it creates a dynamic that is hard to sustain over an extended period. (Perhaps it is worth distinguishing between someone who uses a drug to write—e.g., “I can’t write unless I’m drunk/stoned/etc.”—and someone who is dependent and also writes. The former might lead to the latter, which is not good. The latter, of course, is a problem of a more general impact than just a writing practice.)
Generally speaking, a practice of writing (or, indeed, of anything else) can carry the seeds of its own future. In one path of growth, a damaging practice means that each successive session of practice becomes increasingly damaging and moves the practitioner further away from health. In the opposite path, each successive session, free from injury, allows the opportunity for a positive engagement—whether that positive experience is learning something new that helps improve skill or technique, or a sense that you have done something well, or perhaps even some enjoyment of the experience.
In the long run, a healthy practice will support itself and the practice will become more rewarding. Regardless of your skill level, practice still takes effort, so I wouldn’t say that practices become easier. Indeed, without some fairly significant investment of effort, it’s not much of a practice, and won’t tend to help skills improve very quickly, so practice should involve some difficulties. However, with greater skill comes an increase in the reward for any given effort.
In this sense, I would argue that one way to be a good writer is to have a healthy practice that supports itself, rather than an unhealthy practice that sows the seeds of its own destruction. Of course, if you have a good practice (and are a good writer in that sense), you’re likely to develop skill over time and become a better writer in the other senses, too. With practice, you are likely to experience growth in numerous different aspects of your writing. This is, I think where I start to segue to my original subject of how to become a better writer.
Having touched on different ways of being a good writer (ability to create good written work; self-perception of the process; sustainable, growth-supporting practice), I want to start talking about how to get better at all of these. The key is practice: if you practice, you will get better (at least assuming that the practice is not self-destructive). Practicing will even help you develop a more effective and more sustainable practice, if you keep that as one of your goals.
Practice is activity sustained over time
One session of effort isn’t really a practice. Practice is something that is sustained and maintained over an extensive period of time. If we talk about a doctor’s practice, it is not any one case we refer to, but the whole career of treating different cases. For a writer, we can draw a parallel: the practice is not any one written work, but rather the sustained effort of writing many different things over a long period of time. (I suppose I wouldn’t want to exclude someone who consistently and regularly worked on one single work over a long time—that would be a practice, too. If your practice is more about your personal benefit from working on a project—it’s a hobby rather than a career—then the regular activity is what matters, even if nothing is ever completed. But that kind of practice won’t help with at least one skill that is valuable to writers: the skill of making the necessary compromises to finish and let go of a project.)
It’s only with a regular and repeated practice that you develop in a significant way. Sure, there are people who pick up new skills quickly, but to really refine a skill—to practice it at a high level—it’s necessary to keep at it. This makes perfect sense if we think about the physiological basis of our experience and thinking: both the physical and intellectual aspects of any practice are rooted in our bodies. Practicing something not only develops physical motor skills related to that activity, but also develops the neurophysiology that supports those patterns of thought. Writing is not clearly linked to any specific physical activity—there are different ways to write—but still the practice of trying to express ideas will consistently activate any neurophysiology related to word choice, for example.
For the neurophysiological benefit of a practice, the activity has to be repeated. The efforts have to be repeated. A marathon runner wouldn’t hope to become a good marathoner by working out really hard one day a week. A writer who hopes to write well while only writing one day a week is setting up a good opportunity for frustration and failure—a once-a-week schedule gives enough time between practice sessions that you can lose touch with what you were trying to do in the previous session.
What makes a practice effective?
Realistically, when I started this series of posts, several weeks ago, I had some specific ideas in mind for what I wanted to say about practice. Then I got sidelined into these three posts about what makes a writer a good writer. I don’t remember right now what those specific points are, but I do still want to talk about how to become a better writer. And as I write that, I do remember that one impetus for starting a post on practice was watching a video about how to practice a musical instrument, which led me to start reflecting on the question of what makes a good practice and what kinds of practice would help a writer become a better writer. Those concerns are going to be the subject (I think) of at least one following post, in which I will discuss ways in which practice can support the different kinds of good writing.
To summarize my three posts on what it means to be a good writer: there are different criteria that can be applied. The most obvious criteria for being a good writer are those associated with the creation of good writing. This is, I think, the main consideration when people talk about being a good writer, but, as I mentioned previously, assessment of written work is context dependent, and there can be substantial disagreement on what counts as good writing. In addition to this main group of criteria, I also argued that one can be a good writer because one has a good experience of writing—this kind of writer is good at writing not because of the quality of what is written but because he/she/they feel good when they write. And finally, in this post, I argued that a “good writer” is someone who has a good writing practice: a good writer can be someone whose practice of writing leads to them getting better as a writer. And that is the question I want o pursue in my next post: how can practice help?