Recently a reader emailed to ask how he could improve his writing with only a little time to spare each day.
And, if he only had time to read or write, he added, which one should he do? Was it better to focus on reading or writing?
Behind these questions was a real fear: if he did not have much time in which to practise, would his writing never improve?
I have a lot of sympathy for such questions. For a long time, years ago, I felt accused by a stray comment of Stephen King’s: that one must spend four hours writing and four hours reading every day. This seemed to me, at the time, impossible, and, at the time, I had few non-writing commitments. My life was pretty dull, and yet I still didn’t have enough time!
These days, now that my real life has improved so much, and I have many more things to think about, King’s eight hours of daily work only seems even more impossible.
However, the science of learning offers us some hope. There are hints that we who are restricted by time may not be lost. According to the popular notion of “deliberate practice,” one gets better not by logging hours and hours, dully repeating old tricks, deploying the skills one built up years before, but, instead, by taking the time to deliberately extend one’s abilities.
This is the journalist Joshua Foer commenting on the idea, quoted by the always inspirational Maria Popova:
Something experts in all fields tend to do when they’re practicing is to operate outside of their comfort zone and study themselves failing. The best figure skaters in the world spend more of their practice time practicing jumps that they don’t land than lesser figure skaters do. The same is true of musicians. When most musicians sit down to practice, they play the parts of pieces that they’re good at. Of course they do: it’s fun to succeed. But expert musicians tend to focus on the parts that are hard, the parts they haven’t yet mastered. The way to get better at a skill is to force yourself to practice just beyond your limits.
By pushing oneself to try new, harder things in an organised, regimented fashion, one can improve quickly, the theory goes. The trouble is, deliberate practice is by its nature hard work. It feels bad. Using one’s existing, familiar expertise is fun, satisfying; building up new abilities is tiring, unpleasant, and, usually, dispiriting.
As a result, it’s best to do deliberative practice for a relatively short period of time each day / work session. The goal is to quickly tire out the mind, and to provoke growth, just as, in weightlifting, one attempts to push one’s muscles to exhaustion. It’s that very difficulty that instructs the muscles of the mind to grow, to build new strengths. Then, once the exercise is done, you need to rest.
It’s also best to attempt deliberate practice, the theory goes, with a tutor, a coach, someone to give feedback and present a sequenced, ordered set of challenges.
With this in mind, I would like to offer (to that reader who emailed me and everyone else who is reading this post) a series of daily exercises for you to complete over the next ten days. They should mostly take little time to carry out, but they should (hopefully) be (usefully) taxing. And, like any good prompt, they may well inspire new pieces of writing.
I’ll post one each morning, with many a couple of breaks in the middle to allow people to catch up.
If you are a long-term reader, you will remember some of these exercises from my old series, “Seven Days to Get Writing Again.” Some, however, will be new.
You are encouraged to respond to each exercise in the comment box, or to email me at daniel wallace at gmail.com with your response.
However, I may not be able to give long responses in return (sorry), because for the coming week, I will be very busy. Now that I have handed in my novel to my dissertation committee, I have started working on the final part of my dissertation, the critical / scholarly essay that is meant to accompany my creative project. I’m going to be trying to answer the question: “How available are the techniques of writers of the past to the writers of today?” The essay is going to look at anxiety, changing fashions in fiction, and many other topics. I have to write, proofread, and hand in this essay very, very quickly. Yikes!
That said, I will be reading every response, and I’ll try my best to offer brief remarks.
The first exercise is here, on sentences. I hope you find it useful!