Perfect practice

Writers are often encouraged to get in the habit of writing every day, whether it’s a journal entry, a blog post, a response to a random writing prompt — or actual work on a work-in-progress.  The idea behind this is that by getting into a habit, you’ll accomplish something: you’ll become a better writer, you’ll finish that novel you’ve been working on, you’ll finally get the Pulitzer you should have been awarded years ago.

Like many tips for writers, there’s some truth to this: if you don’t actually write, then, you know, you can’t really be a writer.  And a lot of people complain they don’t have time to write when in fact they simply don’t make time to write — it’s not a priority so they don’t treat it as one.  If it is a priority, then you have to treat it like one, and thus you need to do it every day or some approximation thereof.

The only problem with this line of reasoning is that practice, even practicing every day, doesn’t make you better at anything.  I’ve read blogs by people who have been blogging for years, and they still don’t know the difference between it’s and its; others have never risen above turning out what could charitably be called workmanlike prose.

My first martial arts instructor used to say, repeatedly, “Practice doesn’t make perfect.  Perfect practice makes perfect.”  I’m not going to quibble over whether anyone can become perfect at anything, including martial arts, but the point is a valid one: if you practice a sloppy front kick ten thousand times, it’s still a sloppy front kick on the ten-thousandth-and-first try. 

I’m not saying that you need to make sure that every sentence you write is perfectly formed: that’s a sure road to writer’s block.   I am saying that if you hope to improve as a writer, you need to do more than simply put words on a page for a certain number of minutes or words per day.  Your practice has to include a component of assessment.  You need to figure out if you’re getting better, and where you continue to need improvement. 

I’m not saying you need, necessarily, to join a critique group (that’s a conversation for another time, because those groups can help you grow or strangle your growth, and lots of possibilities in between).  I’m saying you need to be able to tell if you’re getting better, over time.  This could mean submitting your work to editors (or agents) and seeing what happens.  It could mean taking a writing class at a nearby university. It could mean finding a mentor.  It could mean educating yourself on how to improve your writing, by reading books on writing or just reading books, period.  

In any case, it isn’t enough to simply put the words to the page and expect to improve.  Your practice has to include a component of judgment and assessment, though how you get that is up to you.