The skill of writing

December 16, 2015 – 12:46 pm

Writing is a skill. Skills need practice. Usually, we write for specific purposes: An essay required by a course, an article for a journal, a conference submission, the Great Irish Novel, a blog post, or a tweet. Not all require the same degree of commitment or polish, but all have in common that they are directed at others. We write to be read, just as one might learn piano in order to be heard.

But if a pianist only played when others were listening, our expectations for the resulting performance would not be high. Pianists sound good because they play a lot, even, and especially, when nobody is listening. They learn to hear themselves critically.

So find a way to write a whole lot. Write little bits. Write unfinished prose. Write in different keys. Write for those who know your ideas and those who don’t. Write as an end in itself. Write, and throw the result away without a second thought.

Students of painting often spend time copying great works, sitting in galleries making sketches based on painted originals. This can seem like a pointless exercise. The sketches are not themselves offered as works of art. But they serve a purpose. By being relieved of the need to decide upon a composition and subject, the act of sketching allows the student to experience what it feels like to carry out that line, to bring this surface and that detail into contact. In sketching, they have to pay attention to detail that a casual viewer would never notice.

So practice writing by copying great writing. I mean this literally. If you are reading and you have the good fortune to come across an exquisitely expressed idea, a passage of prose that hits you where it counts, then open a window or grab a notebook and write the passage yourself. You don’t have to dream up the words, but you will learn what it feels like to put the words in sequence. You will attend to the pacing and the structure in a new way, and you will learn to love the writing even more. No cutting and pasting! You have to run the words through your fingers!

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