Smarter Writing? Practice Every Day (or just about).

I’m all for vacations, holidays, and the odd mental health day. We all need a break from time to time. As someone who once worked in an industry that worshipped at the alter of face time, I am not impressed by sheer brute force. It makes most of us burnt out, grumpy, and the exact opposite of creative.


But, there’s something to be said for the discipline of a daily or almost-daily practice. I came to writing as a complete number-of-pages-a-day person. At one point while I was working on my dissertation, I had a weekly page goal. If I met that goal by Thursday, I took Friday off and then the weekend on top of that. My thinking was that I met my target and I had earned the break. Looking back at my twenty-something year-old self, I realize that my approach to writing didn’t serve me well. Yes, it’s true that a dissertation on state sovereignty in international law is about as far removed from writing suspense as it gets. (The latter being thoroughly soporific for all but the most hard-core political science nerds, the former–I hope–is not.) But both are lengthy written works and both require you to be in good writing shape.

I call this the “headstand lesson.” I’m digressing, but I promise there is a point. When I first started practicing yoga over a decade ago, I was amazed by people who could do a headstand in the middle of the room. They would just set up and– Presto!–they were upright with their feet in the air and their heads on the ground. It was incredible. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do it.

But I did.

I did because I just kept showing up on my yoga mat and trying. At first, I could barely get into a position with both my toes on the floor. Then it was one toe. Then it was failed kicks. Finally, I got both my legs up in the air. I wobbled, my body was piked, and I’m sure I looked entirely insane until I collapsed into a somersault. The following day wasn’t much better. Yet, somehow, over the course of the next several months, my body learned how to do it. I became one of the people who could do a headstand in the middle of the room. Sometimes even without falling over.

Writing well is a lot like standing on your head. There are a few people who can just do it, but for most of us, regular practice is the only way to get there. When you write every day, you become accustomed to the practice. Every day when you come back to your keyboard, you start to make minor adjustments. Slowly, you get better and the process gets easier. As you write with more ease, you can do things that used to be difficult. Your skills improve. You notice nuances that were invisible to your less-trained eye. And then–Presto!–you write something better than anything you’ve written before. You’re one of the people who can do a headstand in the middle of the room.

And, if you fall, so what?

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