According to the old adage, "practice makes perfect."
For a writer, reading and writing is practice. So the more you do it, the better a writer you should be, right?
In reality, reading and writing every day does not a great writer make.
Not if "reading and writing every day" means browsing news or fashion magazines over your morning coffee and scribbling memos to yourself in your notes app.
Not even if "reading and writing every day" means devouring blog post after blog post and then dumping out your stream-of-conscious thoughts in response.
Because it isn’t just practice that turns a mediocre writer into a great writer.
It’s deliberate practice.
What is deliberate practice?
According to Geoff Colvin, author of Talent is Overrated, deliberate practice is constantly trying to do a thing one cannot do comfortably. Therefore, daily reading and writing won’t help you improve if you’re only doing it leisurely.
When Benjamin Franklin was learning how to write, he didn’t just read a few articles and then begin writing Poor Richard’s Almanac. Instead, Franklin found the best writing available, dissected it, summarized it, and rewrote it. Over and over again.
If you want to write as well (or better than) Benjamin Franklin, you must do the same. You might not do exactly what Franklin did, but there are certain aspects to deliberate practice that will help you significantly improve as a writer if you use them wisely, such as:
Without proper feedback, you can’t really tell if you are improving, or how much you are improving.
You need feedback from two sources: writers and readers. Feedback can come in many forms: statistics showing how many people read your articles, “likes” and “claps” on social media or blogging sites, etc.
But the best feedback is specific.
To receive specific feedback, you need to reach out to some trustworthy writing mentors, friends, and readers and ask them specific questions. Instead of “What do you think about my article?” you can solicit particular advice by asking questions like “What do you think about the [length, introduction, headline, etc.] of my writing?”
Use a mix of open-ended and targeted questions to get a broad range of feedback. And once you have the feedback, immediately implement it, either by revising your piece, or incorporating the best advice into your next piece.
Finding (the right) teacher
It is totally possible to improve your writing skills on your own, but if you truly want to speed up the process, and avoid many dead ends and common mistakes, it’s best to find an experienced teacher.
Today, finding a teacher is easier than ever — there are plenty of classes, both in person and online that you can choose from, no matter where you live.
But the key is to find the right teacher for you: What is the teacher’s background? What kind of work have they produced in the past? What kind of work have their students produced? Is this the kind of work you want to produce? If so, congratulations: you’ve found the right teacher for you.
Learning from a good teacher or mentor is more than worth the investment. Teachers not only have more experience writing, they can see your work from a different perspective and recognize common errors and methods of helping you be the best writer you can be.
Find writing peers
Writing can be a fairly solitary activity. But in order to improve, you need to become part of a tribe of peers.
Look for fellow writers who are a little ahead of you — they will inspire you to work harder so you can reach their level. Look for writers who are a little behind you — you might be able to give them a hand sometimes, and teaching is the best way to learn new concepts. And look for writers who are right at your level — you can be critique partners and inspire each other to improve together.
There is an endless amount of reading material out there, and needless to say, you don’t have time to peruse them all, and not all reading material will help you improve as a writer.
Instead, look for skilled writers and books/articles/writing that have stood the test of time. Find out what makes those particular writers and their works timeless, what attracts you to them. Then practice deliberately by trying to incorporate what you’ve learned into your own writing.
Don’t read strategically
The mind is like a muscle and needs to rest and wander now and then. Sometimes the greatest insights and most creative works emerge after you’ve allowed your mind to experience new things and read some not-necessarily-high-caliber books.
After all, reading disappointing writing may inspire you to create your own, higher-quality rendition, and reading a variety of random but interesting works gives your brain material to work with.
There is nothing new under the sun. Rather, novelty comes from making interesting connections between two or more previously existing ideas. So let your mind play once in a while. Immerse yourself in various life experiences and take time to explore other art forms.
Finally, you don’t always have to read strategically — just read whatever you have in front of you, and let your mind create unexpected connections.
And finally...DON’T read and write (every day)
Reading and writing in the form of deliberate practice can be draining. Don’t do it every day.
Rest, sleep, and play are crucial for creativity and productivity. It is during rest and sleep when your mind is allowed to wander and make interesting new connections. And play (whatever that means to you —either literally playing games, or exploring new places, watching movies, etc.) helps to refresh your body, mind, and spirit, giving you motivation and inspiration to buckle down and practice hard when the time comes.
So don’t read and write every day (unless part of that is leisure reading and journaling for fun). Rather, balance hard work with recovery time, and you will not only avoid burnout, you will find your skills improving much faster than you ever anticipated.
Being the best you can be at anything takes time. But it also takes intention.
Everyone reads and writes nearly every day (emails, texts, anyone?) But few of us reach our full potential as writers. Only those who read and write in order to practice deliberately will become great at writing — and more importantly, great at communicating important messages.
As a writer, you have an important message (or several) to share with the world — messages that only you can share, based on your unique understanding and background.
So read and write wisely, not just daily. Be the best writer you can be so that you can communicate those messages to us.
We’re counting on you.
Which of these tips have you struggled with? Getting feedback? Finding the right teacher or writing peers? Reading strategically, or not reading strategically? Or taking breaks from reading and writing?
Sarah Cy is a writer, tutor, and perpetual learner who writes serious, silly, and sundry posts while striving to help other writers improve their skills and find their purpose.
Sarah is on a mission to promote powerful, life-changing writing. For more information, get the free Write Purpose Manifesto and learn what it means to be a purposeful writer!
To connect with Sarah, say hi on twitter or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.