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Do Writers Get Better the Longer They Write?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

“The more you do something, the better you get at it.”

We’ve probably all heard that at one time or another. But is it really true? Especially when it comes to our writing?

Can we honestly say that the more we write, the better we’ll get?

I’d like to believe that the longer I write and the more books I have under my belt, the better I’ll get.

After all, in the writing world, we like telling each other: “Persevere. If you write long enough, you’ll eventually be ready for publication” or “Keep putting in the time, and you’ll find success.”

All of that sounds nice and cheerful and very raindrops-on-roses.

But is it true?

Here’s what I think: Yes and No.

YES, we’ll likely get better to a degree over time.

1. Consistent writing can help strengthen our creative muscles. I’ve found that when I’m writing every day, I have a much easier time sitting down to my laptop and jumping back into my story world than those times when I’m sporadic.

Not only does the daily writing help the flow of my story, but I also find that regular writing enables me to think of words quicker, find plot solutions easier, and weave in descriptions better. Overall I’m able to write with more ease.

The creative parts of our brains are similar to any other muscle in our bodies. The more we engage them, the stronger and more flexible they become.

2. Regular writing can also help us improve our speed. I’ve also found that over time, I’m able to challenge myself to higher and higher daily word count goals (and weekly totals). With The Preacher’s Bride I made myself write 500 words a day. At that time, with a baby, toddler, and three elementary children, that was all I could manage.

With the book after that, I increased my daily word count goal to 800 words per day. During the next several books, I challenged myself to 1000 words a day. And now, with the book I’m currently working on, I’m up to 1200 words on a daily basis (or a weekly total of 7000).

I couldn’t have jumped into 1200 right away. But slowly, over time, I’ve worked my way up to doing more. In order to improve, we have to challenge ourselves to operate in the zone where it’s just slightly uncomfortable.

3. Disciplined writing helps us take our writing careers more seriously. Those writers who persevere in writing on a regular basis are developing self-discipline that can carry over into other aspects of our writing careers. When we guard our writing and take it seriously, then we’re more likely to show the same professionalism in other areas of our career.

NO, writing in greater frequency for long periods of time doesn’t guarantee success.

1. Just because we’re doing something all the time, doesn’t mean we’re getting better at it. Think about a person who jogs every day. Perhaps they’re perfectly content to jog two miles in twenty minutes for an entire year. That doesn’t mean they’re getting faster or gaining endurance. After a year of jogging at the same distance at the same pace, they aren’t automatically going to be able to run a 5K and finish in a decent time.

The same thing is true of writers. Just because we write 1000 words every day for an entire year, doesn’t necessarily mean we’re ready for publication. If we want to improve (in anything) we have to make conscious steps to push ourselves to do and learn more.

With each first draft, I try to pick a couple new techniques to intentionally work on. At first, I have to think about the technique and make a concerted effort to implement it. But eventually, it becomes effortless and natural. And then I challenge myself to put into practice something else new.

2. The longer we write, the more potential we have for stagnating. We can grow too comfortable with our style, voice, and stories. Our books can start to have a cookie cutter feel. Instead of pushing ourselves to think deeper and harder and find fresh ideas, we stick with what we’re used to.

As I'm currently writing my fifth book for Bethany House Publishers, I’m realizing I need to brainstorm harder, search for new twists, and fight for original metaphors and descriptions—so that I don’t serve my readers leftovers.

My Summary: If we really want to get better at writing, then yes, we need to keep doing it day after day. But we can’t stop there. We have to consciously challenge ourselves to grow in our skill too.

So how long have you been writing? Do you think the longer you write, the better you get? Or do you think other factors (besides the passing of time) are necessary for growth?

32 comments:

  1. Interesting post, Jody, as usual! I've technically been writing since I was 6...lol. But seriously writing? It's hard to say. I have a BA in journalism and an MA in English, both of which helped me to hone my writing skills in different way (reporting is definitely different writing than writing English essays). I've just recently begun writing books, and it's a whole new ball game. So far, I'm getting better, but I'm trying to read a lot of blogs and craft books for tips. I'm also being intentional about getting feedback. But I can easily see how it would be easy to fall into the "I've got it down now" mindset and stagnate.

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  2. I agree with your conclusions. I've been writing since I was a young child - I loved telling and writing stories and would do so for hours, usually with just myself for an audience! Working on my craft and gaining life experience has helped me improve my writing.

    In recent years, I have dedicated more time and effort to writing. I did 2 year-long Open University courses, which were invaluable in giving me a solid foundation of writing skills and lots of critiques from my tutor and fellow students.

    I'm now studying for an MA in Creative Writing, which is more intensive and has led to me improving more and faster. It has underlined the importance of pushing myself and the feedback from my tutors has been invaluable.

    So, time + effort = better writing!

    Time without effort would be worthless, but I can't imagine writing without making an effort to improve - sometimes the effort is small and sometimes it's substantial, but all effort leads to a proportionate improvement. And, of course, you can't put in a great deal of effort without it taking time!

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  3. Your summary at the end is perfect.

    Just like with exercise, if you exercise wrong, you're not going to get better, just end up with hurt knees.

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  4. Jody, I was going to say this but Heather beat me to it, with the same thing using different words.
    When I had a lesson with a golf pro, I made some smart remark like, "Practice makes perfect." He came back with something I'd heard (and ignored) for much of my life. "No, perfect practice makes perfect."
    We have to practice, but we need to get better with each repetition.
    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

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  5. Jody, well said. I always advocate writers have two tracks: the production track (i.e., writing!) and the learning track (studying the craft). I never understand when an ambitious writer thinks just writing more is enough. That would be like a young doctor named, oh, say Mabry, deciding that just doing more brain surgeries is enough. Trial and error, don't you know?

    I think I'd prefer it if he did a little study along the way, too. And maybe have an experienced brain surgeon watching him early on. (This all assumes, of course, that one can actually locate the brain of an ex-lawyer)

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  6. Jody, you've tapped into one of my greatest fears as an author. The fear that after numerous books, my plots and characters will start the lose their spark.

    We've all had favorite authors whose early works were fabulous and who earned our loyalty until we noticed their most recent books failed to meet our expectations. Did they grow lazy or just tired? Had pressing deadlines stolen their passion? Had they become content with good enough? Or - gasp - had their creative well run dry? (another fear)

    You are so right that we need to constantly push ourselves to grow and learn, striving for something special with each story. For the moment we get complacent, our spark will die and our readers will notice.

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  7. Agree so much - with any skill or job, adopting a learning attitude is crucial to development! There's always something to try or do better at. Complacency kills creativity.

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  8. After my first year of doing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month—50,000 words/month), a woman I write with monthly (who is a internationally known writing teacher) commented the following month that she could see improvement in my writing. With the type of writing I was doing (flying fast and furiously, going only for word count), it made me realize that my years of writing, not just my learning about it) had indeed made all the difference in my skill level.

    Miss Midge, my lovely inner critic, kept me from writing for years by suggesting I'd be a better writer by studying it in depth first. So, I read countless books, avoiding the process and that nasty warning about failure.

    As a teacher, I know learning doesn't occur in isolation. This discussion reminds me a lot of the discussion about whether young readers need to learn phonics before reading, or if we should plunge them into books with the whole-language approach (which is actually more flexible than that). And of course, it's all about balance.

    As you and others have suggested here, it takes both. You learn the craft along with the writing. But, if I had to vote on the learning that would occur from doing one of these exclusively and isolated from the other, it would be to just write. It might take a while, but the only lives at stake would be our characters.

    Obviously no one here is suggesting that we write without thinking about craft, or learn craft exclusively, and maybe my brain is wired differently, but if I'm writing, I'm in my writing. I'm present, choosing words, weaving it all together in a conscious way. And when I'm really in the flow and possibly not as conscious, I find gifts in the writing I couldn't possible anticipate or realize.

    I suppose if someone lost their love of writing and forced themselves to keep going it might become stagnant. It's probably just hard for me to imagine that happening. There is certainly no guaranteed success for writing no matter how you do it. You have to love the process, keep the words flowing, and let go.

    This was an interesting topic, Jody. Thanks for your thoughtful post and best wishes on all your projects!

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  9. Couldn't agree more! Practice doesn't make perfect. Practice with learning makes perfect. I made the same mistakes over and over until I picked up craft books. :)

    And woo-hoo on your gradual (and impressive) word count!

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  10. I most definitely agree with you! I was actually just thinking something similar the other day. The more you write, the more opportunity for growth... here's my analogy: If you have a plant, it doesn't just grow to be big because it has been planted a long time. It has to have the proper input (sunlight, water, fertile soil...) writing is the same way. We can write forever without growing, but if we never get feedback, or seek to learn about how to be better, we won't grow.

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  11. Absolutely true! It's like learning to crochet. The first stitch you learn is how to do a chain. If all you did were chains, you'd become a pretty incredible chain maker, but it's only when you stretch and learn how to do a single, double, triple crochet that you can then create all sorts of beautiful scarves, sweaters and afghans. As in crocheting, when we learn new techniques and skills, we can do more with our writing.

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  12. Oh I so agree with you! As a reader, I can tell when some of my favorite authors are hitting that stagnation area. And you nailed it. Stories sound the same, characters blend together.

    When an author debuts, she stretches to rock the publishing world, but the same tenacity and enthusiasm must accompany every book. First or thirty-first.

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  13. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!
    What a blessing! :)

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  14. I absolutely agree! I have been writing since 2004. My writing has improved greatly since then because of working with editors, attending conferences, reading books about the craft, writing/revising all the time...and listening! I think all these are factors for growth.

    I am still not where I'd like to be, but am improving each day.

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  15. Just popping in today to say how much I appreciate all of your comments so far! I had to laugh at Dr. Mabry and Jim Bell's comments! Thanks you guys!

    Great analogies from many of you too!

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  16. I definitely agree with Heather, James and Jill above-- practice with learning makes perfect!
    Thanks for another great post, Jody!

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  17. Thank you for this post, Jody! It was very encouraging to me! I'm glad to know you started out with a small word count. I heard of people with such a large word count I could never have time to write that much with my job. Sometimes I feel discouraged like I could never finish a book because I can't compete with other writers. Reading this, I realized if I try to write for a small word count goal every day, I can at least get further than I was if I didn't write!

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  18. Great post, with great ideas--I love that you try to pick a couple of areas to work on/integrate with each new book.

    I have no problem writing prolifically; however, my writing never got better until I got specific feedback from critique groups and editors. Much of writing well is learning those insider "tricks of the trade"--things that have changed since our college English classes. Dialogue tagging changes all the time. Shoot, you can't even "rear" children anymore (WHAT?).

    But writing more stuff gives you more stuff to get out there for critiques and edits, so it's kind of a catch-22. Enjoyed your post!

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  19. I find writing is a lot like painting and music... doing it regularly may make it easier, but it doesn't necessarily make it better. Making the same mistakes over and over doesn't improve one's technique; it lulls us into believing we're gaining valuable experience. I'm a strong believer in writing daily, but if I expect to improve I know I have to study the craft and make a deliberate effort to apply what I learn.

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  20. I agree. It takes more than just writing regularly to make you get better, it takes challenges.

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  21. It's not the writing everyday that is making me a stronger writer. It's my desire to become one that is doing the magic. Because of my desire, I read craft books focused on various elements of writing, take workshops (especially online), attend conferences, analyze the writing of others. All of those things help me become a stronger writer. But they aren't enough. I still have to "practice" everyday and work at incorporating everything I've learned into my writing.

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  22. A very intersting post, Jody! And you make some very good points.

    I've been doing technical writing for over 25 years. However, the technical writing is, for the most part, one engineer communicating to another engineer.

    Only during the last year have I begun writing for a more general audience in the form of a blog and a book about God's heart toward His children who have experienced divorce.

    All writing is about communication, but my recent endeavors have definitely stretched me.

    I do think the years of technical writing have been of benefit in writing for a more general audience.

    I also think my technical writing has improved over the last year, as I've learned to be more personal in my writing style.

    Thanks for the great post!

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  23. This reminds me of an old saying a teacher twisted for me once -- Practice only makes perfect if you're doing it right to begin with.

    Great, encouraging post. I will get better .. because I'm focused on learning it!

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  24. You summarize it brilliantly. Yes we need to write, but we also have to grow as writers. Think of your runner. What if she has poor form but still keeps running that way every day. If she doesn't alter her gate she runs (ooh, no pun intended) the risk of straining her muscles or experiencing worse damage. She needs to change her stride so all that daily running pays off. If we are writing but writing poorly, then the practice is no good. We have to develop our writing muscles to peak form.

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  25. What a great discussion! I have noticed that the more I write, the better I've become. But I'm constantly gobbling up information about technique, and hopefully it shows in the manuscript.

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  26. Ooo, I'd love to see a post on the list of techniques you've worked on. (Always keeping my eye open for new ways to push myself. :) )

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  27. Thanks for that idea, Jami! I'll store it away for a future post idea!

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  28. I was so inspired by your message that I answered in a blog post, adding more thoughts about the value of practice: Does Practice Make Perfect?.

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  29. I also like to believe the longer I write the better I'll get. I try to read one book a summer on writing and then practice anything new I learn. To get better at writing I think it means a life time of learning, and more importantly, being open to learning and feedback.

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  30. I've been writing for a long time, but it has been the consistency that has given my work a boost. I agree with Julie M. that devouring craft books also infuses the writing with quality. On another note, I just received The Doctor's Lady from a contest on Michelle Teacress's blog. Thank you. I can't wait to dig in.

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  31. Glad you got the book, Leslie! Hope you'll enjoy it!

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  32. Great post, Jody. Just what I needed to read.

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