Practising writing

A few weeks ago Jonathan Poritsky wrote one of those motivational posts about writing that seem addressed less to their readers and more to the writer's own self. Many bloggers put up such posts, especially after a dry spell, to try and rustle up the magic writing juice habit -- or whatever it is that conjures up the words. I know them well, I've written a couple such posts myself.

Poritsky concludes his post emphatically:

There's no simple answer other than to just write. … Write. Above all else.

About a week later Gabe Weatherhead picked up on Poritsky's post and asked the question:

I'd go one question deeper. So what's the problem we're trying to solve?

Although Weatherhead was quoting an earlier part of Poritsky's post -- about Twitter's impact on blogging -- I think the broader problem he's referring to is something like: "Why value writing a blog over posting on Twitter?", or "Why obsess over word counts?" or, even, "Why blog?"

I've been mentally milling around this territory recently and I have an answer, one that is true for me, at least some of the time. Though I suspect that my answer will not be relevant to either of the two authors that prompted it, I am grateful for the accidental impetus that led me to this post.

Practice

Writing is helpful for clarifying your own thinking, deepening your ability to engage with and synthesize the ideas of other writers, as well as for communicating the fruits of that process with your readers. There are other things it's good for as well. Some people even enjoy doing it.

The problem is how to practice writing.

Practice is crucial in both acquiring and developing any non-trivial skill. Daniel Coyle, in the Little Book of Talent, reveals that top performers spend most of their time practising.

Coyle identifies two kinds of practice:

  • Practising fundamental techniques until they become automatic and near-perfect, and then to maintain them at that level.
  • Practising a skill at the outer edges of your competence. It turns out that the most efficient tactic to improve is by working at the level where it's hard but not impossible.

So practice has two modes: mindful repetition and purposeful struggle.

To practice fundamentals, for example, pianists play scales. To challenge themselves, they might tackle a musical piece appropriate to their level. Skateboarders practice a single trick until they perfect it, before tackling a set of inter-connected tricks. Athletes, artists and craftspeople often have similar methods available to them.

Practice in this context is the counterpoint to performance, which is brief and public. Coyle argues that, although the media obsess about the artist on the stage or the athlete on the field, the real work is in the untold hours of practice that come before and follow after that performance.

How is a writer to achieve the same?

We have no scales to play or tricks to perform. And though the goal is to persuade or move our audience, there is no performance to counterpoint the lonely slog of writing1.

All we have is this brittle work of putting one word after another, and then shuffling them around, cutting some, adding others, over and over again, arranging our words just so, to summon images and to shape thoughts in our readers' minds.

Blogging

The blog post, with its relative brevity, informal structure and absence of physical or financial constraints, is an excellent laboratory for practising writing.

You can use brief posts to work on basic techniques or to try out small experiments. But you can also challenge yourself with longer posts, a more adventurous style, or by tackling "dangerous, agile and two-horned topics"2. In many cases, you can combine these approaches in one piece.

You can be succinct or prolix at will, only taking stock of your readers' patience. There is no word limit imposed by the format or advertising considerations.

I am reminded of something John Gardner said in the Art of Fiction:

Writing an exercise, the writer is in the ideal artistic state, both serious and not serious.

I find writing exercises, of the kind you'll find in writing manuals, bafflingly dull. Their chief failure is in divorcing the text from any notion of a reader. But approaching writing as practice grants you the double vision that Gardner noted, while preserving the all-important context that only readers can provide.

Writing only exists when it engages an audience. For this reason texts are framed by the closest thing to performance that is available to writers: publication.

Unless you write to express your inner weird, publication is the only way to claim an audience. I'm not talking about web traffic or such quantitative metrics. I simply mean that without publication writing is incomplete, in the same sense that shooting hoops is not basketball.

The audience you envision for a text defines the parameters of that work. The vocabulary you use, for example, should depend on the background knowledge of the human minds that will read your words. If you write without a sense of audience, the result will be muddled3.

Because blogs are not constrained, as popular magazines or scientific publications are, to specific topics or disciplinary approaches, a writer can treat their audience as an aspect of style, and approach different readers in each post.

But a writer's preoccupations, serious or not serious, may not always persuade their readers. For example, here is Brett Terpstra magnanimously responding to a comment about the irrelevance of posting tips for driving in the snow on his personal blog:

Commenter: I don't feel this is particular relevant to a technology focused blog. Terpstra: I love you.

Publication brings together audience and writer. Come what may.

Self

Even when the audience is as limited as my own, publication is a significant stake if you want it to be. For example, I write under my own name, which future employers, potential spouses and laconic assassins can all look up for their amusement or dismay. And even if I were to decide to take down these words, this site is mirrored at the Internet Archive4.

As a form of public communication, writing can be intimidating. The fear of publishing, like all fear of failure, is bound up with notions of self-worth. But keeping self and writing apart is hard because publication thrusts performative anxieties into what should be a practice space. And while this difficulty is ever present, it is most pronounced when you're working in that more ambitious mode I identified earlier as "purposeful struggle."

In short, there is no safe space for a writer to practice in. We're always playing for keepsies.

But there is another side to this experience. For all the occasionally crippling uncertainty, writing allows me to externalize my thoughts, in the context of a readership, and to work with that morass of meaning outside of my own head.

Exposing my mental processes in this way reminds me to hold my own self more lightly, to treat it as both serious and not serious. To look at my writing as just marks on a screen, mine and not mine.

Some people practice singing or one of the many varieties of sportsball because they want to be the big fish in their local pond. Others get into cooking or woodworking out of a love for the craft itself, or out of an appreciation for its products: the fine meal or the bevelled countertop.

I write because writing makes me feel like a better human. It's motivating when people find my writing delightful or edifying. But mostly, I write for myself. The twist is that I struggle to write anything at all unless it's for other people.

"Write," urged Poritsky. "Above all else."

And publish.

Blogging is my solution for the problem of how to practice writing. At the same time I'm realising that practising is not merely about becoming better at a skill. But also in becoming more skilful at being.


  1. If we're lucky we will have people to give us feedback along the way. Wise beta readers and experienced editors are more important in shaping texts than most people think. The idea of the lone genius is, like a summer storm, appealing in a romantic kind of way -- but you really don't want to get caught up in it. Non-professional blogs generally lack editorial oversight, which is both a blessing (ease of publishing) and a curse (ease of publishing nonsense). ↩︎

  2. "Why write, if this too easy activity of pushing a pen across paper is not given a certain bullfighting risk, and we do not approach dangerous, agile and two-horned topics?"
    ---José Ortega y Gasset, On Love: Aspects of a Single Theme ↩︎

  3. I had two particular people in mind while writing this post. That's one too many, I think. I'm pretty sure I'm going to confuse both of them somewhere along the way. ↩︎

  4. I looked it up while writing this post. They must have a pretty low bar for inclusion. ↩︎

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