Focused Practicing

A couple of years ago, I heard Howard Tayler, the writer and illustrator of Schlock Mercenary, talk about the importance of practice and hard work in comparison to talent. It was amazing. Of all the panels and lectures on writing that I’ve been to, this was definitely the one that made me think the most.

He talked about many things (including this fascinating article), but the two things that stood out the most to me were:

1.      No one has the right to look at your work and tell you that you aren’t talented.

2.      Don’t practice the wrong thing.

As far as talent goes, he equated it to having a five foot head start on a mile long race, something that really isn’t going to help you out all that much. It’s the work and the effort and the practicing that is going to make the difference.

But, when it comes to practicing, don’t practice the wrong things. Don’t practice telling yourself why your work is bad. Practice looking for the good and then making the rest better. Take on something that is challenging and get better at it. Believe that your effort is going to make a difference.

How do you get better, though? And what do you practice?

The next year, Mr. Tayler taught a class on focused practicing, which was essentially the practically course to go along with his lecture on talent and most of the time was spent doing writing exercises. After identifying a common writing problem, we would do a writing sprint to practice that thing. For example, to practice writing descriptions, we did a five minute writing sprint describing something in the room. To practice dialogue, we practiced writing a scene in a “white room” with no description and no dialogue tags.

Find something that you struggle with and that you want to improve on and figure out a way that you can practice that thing, then spend 10-15 minutes a day working on it and you will improve.
The thing with practicing, though, is that it is much like playing scales on a piano: not very fun and not something you can use in a performance. But. Practicing makes the fun stuff so much better, but also more fun.

One of my weaknesses is titling stories. Sometimes I get the idea for the title beforehand, but usually it’s something I really struggle with. So I force myself to come up with a list of 100 possible titles for the story. Not all at once, but usually over the course of a few weeks. Some are terrible, some are even worse than that, and some are not so bad. Buried in all that, though, I can usually find a couple that I like, that resonate with me, but it takes time and effort to force my brain to concentrate and to work like that.

Do you have any writing exercises that you like to do? What has helped you get better at writing?


Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.

One thought on “Focused Practicing

  1. Great topic! I've read something similar about it's not just practice that makes someone exceptional, it's perfect practice. Not only do you have to practice the right thing, you have to practice it correctly. For me, it would be revising/rewriting. I assume because I have a way with words that the first time should be good enough. But it isn't. When I see a 1200 word piece improve drastically with 5 hours of rewriting I'm both dismayed and overjoyed! Feels like doing real work. Thanks for a great topic.


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