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.
Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved
Excellent article! Thanks for the reminders.
Thank you Mershon!
'deliberate practice is constantly trying to do a thing one cannot do comfortably.' SO love that! We seem to think this should be easy, because when we read good books, they SEEM easy. Not So.
I have a hard time resting, believe it or not. I write every day, unless I'm sick or fishing (and even then, I get up early and get some words in). I started writing at 40 or so, and that was quite a while ago....I don't have time to waste.
Agree with the one about finding the right teacher. If I wouldn't have found Margie Lawson, I sure wouldn't be where I am now (whererever that is).
Great post, Sarah, thank you for blogging with us!
I used to believe writing was easy. And then I dug deeper and learned that it is anything but.
Thank you Laura! Agreed. The easier articles are to read, the harder they were to write, much of the time. It's true in every endeavor--figure skaters and musicians practice for DECADES in order to produce ten minutes of perfection on ice/on the stage.
One of my deliberate practices is to learn very specifically from other writers who do something well. Just finished the latest Stephen King book "The Outsider" and was struck by how, at the beginning of every scene, he grounds the reader about where we are - :Jeanette Anderson rose at quarter of seven" ; "Frank Peterson's body had been released to the Donelli Brothers Funeral Home on Thursday afternoon" ; :Grace and Sarah sat in the living room on the couch." It may seem like a small thing, but so many times when I'm reading a book and a new chapter starts, I'm left wondering "where are we? when is this? who are these people?" - we can learn a lot of simple basics from those writers like King who have this down to a science (as well as an art form)- it's reading but reading as Sarah says, deliberately to learn.
Hi Maggie! That's great. Attention to detail is definitely one of the cornerstones to deliberate practice, and it looks like you have that in spades 🙂
I feel like the luckiest person ever to have such great writing peers, and I've had phenomenal teachers as well. But resting? Ugh. I stink at that! I've been trying lately to make sure I also read for fun and not just to check off a list.
Thanks for highlighting the importance of deliberate practice. Great post, Sarah!
Resting can be hard in a world that values busy-ness (even over productivity!) But it's a good idea to schedule it in, just as we schedule other commitments in. Because it doesn't just promote health, it promotes effective writing 🙂 Thanks for reading, Julie!
Great blog, Sarah! I didn't even realize I was 'writing seriously' every day, for years, and with one book recently published and working on 2 others, I think it's 'burnout' time.
Like Laura, I have a hard time resting and feeling the need to make up for a late start in 'serious' writing. But I'm at a point of dreading going to the computer in the morning--which must be the start of burning out as Sarah clearly described.
Also - constant reading about the craft, about marketing, the online workshops. Yikes. It's time to stop and take a rest, build some 'play' and relaxation into every day. Thanks so much Sarah for this timely and inspiring blog!!
Hi N. Christine! One thing I've learned is that most things in life require balance. We need time to read/absorb/learn, time to write/perform/put things out there, and time to rest/relax/let things stew. When those three things are in perfect balance, we can reach our full potential as creatives.
Thank you so much for this, Sarah! It's so rich and true. I've connected with you online. Enjoy your week!
Hi Victoria! Thanks for your support. I saw that on Twitter--followed back 🙂
i found I have a great imagination but poor writing skills. I joined a critique group years ago and have been improving slowly but in the mean time I've written almost two books and many short stories. The critique members are skilled both above and below in writing prowess. I love the interaction and I learn something every time we meet. Not just about my work but about how to critique and read others. This blog was very spot on with the general advice. The only thing I had not considered was the finding a teacher. I feel like I should know these writing rules already and so I keep slogging onward, but I use new tools like Grammarly and Prowritingaid as my auto-teacher. I've also bought books about writing grammar. It does seem to be working. Thanks for the review of these areas. Possibly another powerful way to increase writing prowess might be to set goals. Perhaps more long term than short set some goals. There are so many articles about goal setting but I believe you should aim for a goal that is slightly outside your comfort zone and try to reach it. Perhaps read about goal setting by other bloggers like
The Write Life
Better Writing Habits
The Write Practice
Here is a writing business plan from Writing World (super interesting article).
And of course Laura Drakes
Another great article by Colleen Story
There are tons of sites that recommend goal setting and although Sarah recommends not writing daily...its all good. If you set a goal and find you are not quite going to reach it....look at what you HAVE done. Maybe you wrote 50,000 words instead of 100,000. For crying out loud..you just wrote 50,000 words. Pat yourself on the back.
Love this, Jeanne - you're SO right. And thanks for the links (and the shout-out)!
Hi Jeanne--I second Laura, and heartily agree. Good goal setting skills are helpful in just about every aspect of life, writing included. Thank you for sharing the articles!
Thanks for the tips. ALL of the pieces are challenging. Taking (and offering) the right bits of writing advice from fellow writers is one of the most difficult areas for me. Somewhere (I wish I could credit the source) I read that the best advice is general, allowing the author room to creatively solve a problem; bad advice is the kind that says, "change this phrase to this phrase, and your work will be all better." Which may or may not be authentic for that particular work--it's just some other writer doing your homework.
Hi crbwriter. That is true, not all advice is applicable to all people at all times (not even my advice above, ha!). It takes wisdom and discernment to figure out what is the best advice for you and in your specific circumstances. I think a blend of general and specific tips is helpful, but of course, even the best advice is no good unless it's applied. Application and testing advice in the real world is usually the best way to figure out whether or not the advice is sound.
This is a great introductory post. I would like to find more information about reading effectively to improve my writing. I think more specific examples of how to do this would be helpful to writers who don't know how.
That's an interesting question. I think effective reading techniques can vary from person to person. For me, I like to read and re-read my favorite books, post-it/underline/rewrite quotes that particularly stand out to me, keep a swipe file of ideas and "turns of phrases" that resonate, and sometimes I deconstruct novels to see how they work (taking note of how many pages per scene, scenes per chapter, how plots and subplots develop within each unit of pages/scenes/chapters, etc).
I use my reading time as my resting. And believe me, it is nice to wallow in someone else's words for a while. Especially when my own aren't coming out easily.
Hi Jenny! Agreed. I love to read without worrying about deliberate practice. Reading for fun is one of my favorite hobbies. And it's not totally unhelpful--you never know how your brain is absorbing the author's tone or style and how that will come out in your own writing one day 🙂
Thanks for a great article, Sarah. "Deliberate practice" is what I need to work on. Nice reminder!
Thank you Fae! It is a good reminder for me, too. Deliberate practice is hard by definition, so I do slack off sometimes. But hearing from and seeing such an active community of writers all interested in improving their skills inspires me to keep practicing!
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Wow, Sarah, such great tips here--and from everyone else, too! I struggle with "deliberate practice," and I find that one of the most useful things I can do is outline a book I like--just jotting down the basic plot elements of the book, chapter by chapter, often helps me think about how to structure my own work in new ways.
Thank you Holly! That is a great suggestion--I have outlined in the past like you describe, but definitely could do more of that.
Thanks for the great tips and reminders, Sarah! 🙂 Sharing...
Thank you Bette!
great and practical information
Thank you! Glad you found it so 🙂
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Loved this article and others by you that I just discovered on Medium. I wish you could be my writing mentor! Thanks for another inspiring article to get my writing wheels churning!
We're glad you've joined us, Dorian.