I got my first guitar when I was seven, and I couldn’t wait to play like Keith and Bruce. Not Keith Richards and Bruce Springsteen. I’m talking about those spunk muffins of the sixties—Keith Potger and Bruce Woodley. Together with Judith Durham and Athol Guy, they formed the fab folkie foursome The Seekers. I was sure it would only take a few lessons and I’d be singing and playing along like my favourite group. It didn’t quite work out that way.
In the first lesson, my music teacher gave me a crash course in theory, taught me the notes on two strings, and sent me home with some exercises to practise. The next couple of weeks were still spent plucking those two strings, but I was at least given some songs to play—the toe-tapping ‘Skip to My Lou’ and the chorus of ‘Cielito Lindo’. Viva Mexico! Months passed before I learned the notes on all six strings, but things were looking up. Now that I’d mastered everything there was to know about the guitar, I would surely get some Seekers’ songs to play. Then I found out there were sharps, flats, dotted rhythms, chords, strumming, finger-picking—the list went on. It was about three and a half years before I could confidently sing and play guitar at the same time, though I did manage to get my picture in the newspaper with Judith Durham along the way J
So what does all of this have to do with writing? In other disciplines like music and sport, we understand that practice is an important part of skill-building. Sometimes I wonder if we really understand this as writers. We learn the basics of writing at school—grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, spelling. By the time we’re adults, we’ve written essays, reports, letters, and sizzling diary entries declaring our love for David Cassidy and the Osmonds. (Oops – that may have been my diary.) But have we really spent time practising our craft? Here are some reasons why we should value the good ol’ art of practice.
1. Practice helps us improve.
If you practise your writing skills regularly, you’ll start to see an improvement. A pianist plays thousands of scales in order to master different key signatures. A footballer kicks thousands of balls in order to make that Grand Final goal when their team needs it most. Why should writing be any different? In between your larger projects, try some exercises. Set a timer and write for ten minutes without stopping. You’ll be amazed where random thoughts might take you. Next time you’re at a coffee shop, spend a few minutes writing unique descriptions of passers-by or catch a snatch of overheard dialogue and use it to prompt a story idea. Go to an art gallery and write a poem or devotion inspired by one of the paintings. If you’re stuck for ideas, there are lots of web sites that give suggestions. For example, try some of the writing prompts from the ThinkWritten site or exercises by Mary Jaksch.
There is a caveat though. At some point, you need feedback so that you know you’re on the right track. Just as a music teacher will correct your hand positions, a more experienced writer can give you tips to help you polish your prose. If you don’t know anyone who can help, think about joining an online critique group. For example, FaithWriters has regular writing challenges where you can submit work and receive feedback from others.
2. If we don’t practise in our weaker areas, our writing will stagnate.
While any kind of practice will keep the creative juices flowing, we need to especially practise in our weaker areas. When my music teacher introduced me to all of those rascally sharps and flats, it was tempting to neglect the piece I was supposed to be practising and go back and play the easier songs. The longer we avoid those difficult areas, though, the longer it will take us to reach the next level. My weak areas in writing include body language, setting and description. There are only so many times my heroine can push a strand of hair behind her ear, or my hero can stroke his chin, before readers get bored. I’ve bought a couple of books on setting and description to help me, so I’d better get cracking. What are your weak areas? What can you do to improve on those things? Also try writing in different genres to expand your creative tool kit. If you usually write nonfiction, try your hand at poetry or skits. If you usually write fantasy, try a contemporary romance or mystery. The techniques you learn can cross-pollinate your other writing endeavours.
3. Even if we’ve mastered higher-level skills, we have to maintain the basics.
It may be true that you never forget how to ride a bicycle, but the same isn’t always true of other skills. Guitar is my main instrument, but I can also play basic keyboard. I hadn’t played my keyboard for years, except for the odd Christmas carol. I dug it out recently to work on some songs, and I discovered that even some of my basic skills had eroded. I kept hitting the wrong keys and had to consult a chord chart to refresh my memory. It’s going to take a lot of practice to get back to my previous level and then improve from there. The same is true of writing. Every now and then, we need to revisit the basics. Have we remembered to show rather than tell? Is our dialogue realistic? Could our sentences flow better?
If I’d spent more time practising the guitar when I was young, I would have been singing and playing those Seekers’ songs sooner. Maybe the group would have ‘discovered’ me and I could have joined their ranks, stopped Judith Durham from leaving, and spared the world from a 24-year drought until the group’s first reunion tour. (And of course I was in the audience for that one.)
How about you? What writing exercises have you found useful? What areas would you like to improve in? Are there any writing craft books you can recommend? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Nola Passmore has had more than 150 short pieces published, including fiction, poetry, devotions, true stories, magazine articles, and academic papers. Her debut novel 'Scattered' will be published by Breath of Fresh Air Press in 2019. She and her husband Tim run a freelance writing and editing business called The Write Flourish. You can find her occasional writing tips blog on their website. She still has The Seekers' Songbook she got for her 8th birthday.