Developing a level of mastery as a writer takes time and plenty of practice. The best way to hone your voice and observe it developing is by writing regularly. Forcing yourself to get on and do the damn thing, every day.
It’s like learning to play an instrument to a professional level. If you only put in the occasional marathon practice session, your skills won’t develop, beyond a certain stage.
That used to be me.
I played the flute and got a lot of recognition in my youth for my ability. From the age of 10, I was certain, that was the path I wanted to pursue.
By 18, I was studying on a college course that was heavily-weighted towards music and performance. My other A-Level subjects were taught in 5 hours a week. For Music, we studied 12+ hours a week, and that didn’t include practice time and concert rehearsals.
It was total immersion, and I loved it.
My academic ability in music soared, resulting in an A at A-Level. But my performance level started to falter around the age of 19.
My flute teacher could tell I wasn’t putting in the practice. Lessons were becoming painful because I wasn’t making progress with the tricky parts of the pieces I was learning.
I never did master “Flight of the Bumblebee.”
I just kept hoping to wing it on the minimum amount of practice.
I didn’t want to admit that I wasn’t completely committed to the path I was on. That’s what you do — you hold on to the dream and develop a kind of delusion that you’re moving towards it. Because it’s what you want.
None of us on that course really wanted to practice for 4+ hours a day. Our professor gave us a firm talking to and told us that we’d all become teachers, not performers. Oh, the light of truth! How dare he! I did NOT want to be a teacher.
Honestly, we didn’t have a sense of urgency about achieving our goals. We were dreamers. Caught in a time when we still had it too good. I know I thought I was gifted enough to swing it and still get what I wanted.
I wasn’t. Without the practice, there was no progress. I quit playing not long after that.
This is why I feel the urge to help people who have a dream.
I work with people who have a dream to be a writer and help them find ways to make it happen. It’s one part encouragement and one part dispelling the delusion that you’ll somehow become a writer by wanting it hard enough.
Maybe if I’d been shown the reality of becoming a professional performer, I’d have seen what needed to be done sooner.
The reality is, all successful performers spend 4–6 hours a day practicing. Most of that time is spent alone, in chilly practice rooms, which at colleges are often in basements. Or they’re windowless and soundproofed, like a grey cocoon.
I hated being in those rooms and feeling cut off from the world, running over awkward sections of Bach sonatas for hours on end.
If you enjoy the practice, you have a shot at becoming a master.
Becoming good at a thing is about finding something you enjoy practicing. When I wake up in the morning, I’m excited to get to my Mac, with my notebook at my side.
The whole ritual I’ve created around my practice supports that. The coffee pot is on before I begin. My pretty yellow mug is ready to be filled. My talismans are on my desk (quartz crystals, glass owl & potted plant).
I slip into the zone and feel like the writer I need to become before I begin to write.
Nobody needs the rituals and the talismans.
Sometimes I capture my best ideas when I’m out on a walk, rapidly typing them into Google Docs on my phone.
Some people have a steely level of focus that allows them to just get on and write. It’s never been like that for me. I am the Queen of Distractions. There are so many different trains of thought running through my head that I can jump on one at any time and land up 80 miles away before I’ve even noticed.
The rituals and the talismans remind me what I’m here to do, and who I need to focus on being, in order to get the practice done.
I like to think that one day I won’t need them. But they also give me cheer. They remind me that I’m here to practice — that’s the goal.
Some writing done is better than none.
Make your practice the focus of what you do.
When you focus on your practice, rather than your output, you’re more likely to do the work and stick to your practice schedule.
This is why it’s important for beginner writers to put in the time and freewrite frequently, before setting themselves goals to write a book or publish x number of stories by a certain date.
Learn to love the practice before you set yourself lofty goals like that.
Reward yourself for showing up.
Mark the days off on a calendar — the ones you actually turn up at the page and write. Get a packet of little golden stars and make a wall chart. It sounds so silly but it works.
Stick it on the wall behind your computer and smile proudly to yourself each time you add another star.
Join a group (like mine!)
Join a group that supports you in your writing practice and helps you build a regular habit of turning up at the page. The right group will give you a blend of encouragement and accountability that makes you want to get down to work.
Of course, you don’t have to do any of these things. But don’t get caught in the delusion trap of thinking that you’ll become a writer one day, without doing something about it. If you find the thing you love to practice, you’ll wake up every day excited about getting to do the thing, and practice won’t feel like an inconvenience or a chore.