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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Practice makes passable

We practice public speaking, we practice sports, we practice asking our boss for a raise, we practice drawing, even kissing. We understand that practice is essential to doing something well.

Why do I love flash fiction and writing prompts?

Because practice is essential to being a good writer.

Good authors don't just expect to write a bestseller the first time they ever pick up a pen or plop down in front of their word processor. Writing is a skill and, like all skills, it's something you need to work at to get better.

When I was in middle school, I was a part of my school's Power of the Pen team. It's like sports, but for nerdy writer kids. Power of the Pen was a writing competition. You were given a prompt and then given 40-minutes to write a story from the prompt. The judging was rigorous, your hand was likely to get a cramp, and you did 3 prompts at each meet. And my school took it seriously.

We met twice a week to practice for competition. The first day, we were handed a prompt from a past competition and told to write. After the writing portion, we were given a top-rated story answering the prompt from competition and read it together and discussed it and the score. For homework, we were then handed photocopies of the whole team's stories from the previous week to take home and read. On the second day, we reviewed these stories together and scored them.

It was brutal. Not only all of the writing and reading, but, more so, the critiquing. Imagine you're a middle schooler, 12-years-old, and you're not only being criticized -- you're being criticized and scored by your peers. Yeowch. But our coaches knew something that we didn't. Our coaches knew that receiving critique and accepting it was a part of getting better as people and as writers.

Nowadays, I wish I still had that structure. What I've learned, though, is that you need to hone your internal critical voice and be prepared to be honest and deliberate with yourself. Which takes practice.

So writing practice is a double-sided knife*. First, you practice to keep the rust off of your metaphor-spinner, your story-weaver, your dialogue-generator, your tone-toner. Second, you practice to keep your critical ear warmed and ready. As you write more, and longer pieces (like a novel) you critical ear can become deafened to your own writing. Keep it in working condition by turning it on to smaller pieces. Keep your brain and fingers limber with writing exercises, and keep that ear tuned in by reading them back to yourself critically. Because, as the adage goes, practice makes passable.

Looking for prompts? Get started at The Write Practice, and subscribe while you're there.

*Or, you know, whatever the expression is.

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