Talking About Practice

All throughout my childhood, my dad taught me how important it is to practice. When I struggled at baseball, he told me to practice. When I didn’t do well on a test, he told me to study harder for the next one. So when I became an avid writer, and my dream of becoming a professional writer became more and more realistic, I knew I should heed my dad’s advice.

So I wrote as much as I could, and—perhaps more importantly—I read as much as I could. I read magazines and newspapers, and I surfed the Internet for everything I could find in every major publication. From there I learned to write: I would read what I liked, and try to do what those writers did.

Still, today, I don’t read as much as I should, and I don’t write as much as I should. I’ve heard many professional journalists say that a good way to become a better writer is to write every day, and I don’t normally do that. I write a fair number of sports stories and do a fair amount of writing for class, but rarely do I write, say, for all seven days in a week. Even if it’s just a short piece on an event from the day or something cool that happened to me, I agree that it’s valuable to write every day. I think so for the same reason my dad always gave me: you always get better with practice. Writing is no different—I think the more you sharpen your skills, the better you get.

First, you generally learn more about yourself and your style. I believe the best writers of all genres have their own distinct style, something that makes their writing theirs. If I picked up, say, a Gary Smith profile on the ground without a name, I would know Gary Smith wrote it. Writing every day helps you find your voice that you can keep consistent.

I also think it helps you stay “in shape.” Like anything else—playing the trumpet, shooting a basketball, painting, singing, golfing, reading—writing is a skill that needs to be maintained. It’s not like riding a bike, where, as the expression goes, you learn how to do it and then you know forever. If you don’t write consistently, you lose touch with it. If I didn’t write all summer, I would have been a worse writer when school started in the fall than when I left in the spring. Writers—again, like trumpet players and golfers—go through slumps and surges, and I think staying in tune helps minimize those slumps.

Finally, you learn what works and what doesn’t. You might get to break the rules every so often, and that’s a good thing. You can try opening with a question, or writing a whole piece full of rhetorical questions. You can try opening with a quote, or writing a whole piece without even one quote. You can write long, winding paragraphs with complex diatribes, or you can break up your writing to keep the reader on his or her toes. Even just small devices—parallelism, metaphor, avoiding clichés—get tightened up. Everything is on the table, and when that’s the case, you can zero in on what works best.

The Hardest Advice to Follow: Your Own

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Neil Gaiman offers a little bit of advice.

Writing is no easy task. Of that I am well aware. And like all other processes that can be long, difficult and quite frustrating, advice on the craft is available for those who think they require it. I have read Stephen King’s On Writing, I follow writing-themed accounts on Twitter, and I have sought out and also stumbled upon random tips for writers. Most of these sources of advice, if not all, include one point that I think is quintessential: write everyday.

Now that sounds simple enough, of course, but for some reason I don’t do it. Outside of academics, I typically only write when the moment strikes. This is perfectly exemplified in the journal that I keep. Initially, I’m pretty positive I set out with the intention that it would be a daily place to write down thoughts and happenings. Soon that “daily” turned into “weekly,” and shortly after it turned into “whenever-I-feel-like-it.” The dates are rather sporadic; I think the biggest gap spans about two months (yikes). In my attempt to save a little face here, I do jot down the odds and ends I randomly think of on an *almost* daily basis that could turn into bigger pieces of writing. Those I keep in a notebook.

The underlying problem is no mystery to me – at least not anymore. I have learned many things since coming to college – which is rather the point of this place anyway, I’m fairly certain – and one of those is this: I am a lazy person at heart, and I am only slightly ashamed to admit it. I was semi-aware of this prior to college, but post-secondary education has brought out the true nature of the beast, and it is ugly. I often find myself at Procrastination Station, in danger of missing the last train. It can be exhilarating at times – knowing the final countdown fast approaches, I hunker down and become determined to finish the paper or project before the deadline snipes me between the eyes- but it is far too dangerous a life to be living. Here again, though, I don’t follow my own advice and procrastinate anyway.

What’s the matter with me? I could follow this rhetorical question with a series of further rhetorical questions suggesting the possible things that could be the matter with me, but that would be pointless because I already know what the problem is, I’m just too lazy to do anything about it. See what I did there?

Read to Write

Ever since I was a little girl, I have loved to read. While my love for reading has lasted over time, the amount I read has dwindled tremendously. I used to read anything I could get my hands on. I would sit down with a book and not get up until it was finished.
My mom always tells me that the way to become a better writer is to be a reader. She begs me to go back to my book obsessive days. But somehow, with all of my other responsibilities, and with my free time being consumed by reading through Facebook, I have neglected my love for reading books.
I agree with my mom on the importance of reading with regards to improving many aspects of myself, including the writing part of myself. I hope this is something I prioritize in the coming year, and that it is not too late to rekindle my love for a good book on a Saturday afternoon.

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Practice What You Preach?

Like many of you, I have been writing for a VERY long time. I’ve considered myself a writer ever since first grade when I wrote my first short story: a fiction piece about a young student who gets sucked into his computer screen. Despite my love for writing, there are many things I know I should do, but don’t. I have drafted an annotated list that includes some of the strategies and approaches to writing to which I often fall short. These include:

1) Reading out loud- Just do it!! After spending hours and hours on a draft, the last thing I want to do is read the paper out loud, one sentence at a time. However, after years of getting points off on papers for stupid grammar mistakes, I think I have learned my lesson. It is foolish to not spend the extra half hour reading out loud after spending so much time on the paper itself. You never know if a sentence structure is awkward or unclear until it is read aloud.

2) Try to publish your work- If you think its great, chances are others will too! There are so many publications in our community, many of which are student run and always looking for new work to publish. You can even make money for your work by entering contests. For example,poetry contests are extremely common and often offer and nice cash prize. But more importantly, publishing your work is a great was to get recognition! I once tried to get a poem I wrote about golf published in Golf Magazine, but unfortunately it didn’t work out. Regardless, now is the perfect time to get your name out there through accessible publications.

3) Use a style guide- Don’t under-estimate them! No one is too good for a style. There are so many rules and grammar, and sometimes grammar but be correct but not effective. There may be a better way to organize your thoughts. So, start carrying around a style guide. There are many different versions, my favorite being the Strunk and White “Elements of Style.”

4) Free write- I tend to write drafts very slowly, carefully crafting each sentence as if for a final draft that must be perfect. But, for a first draft, this simply isn’t the case. Sometimes it is better to get all your ideas down on the page before going back to edit and organize. This is why I think it would be good for me, and all writers, to do more free writes when preparing to write a paper. A free write is usually about ten minutes of constant writing, never stopping to analyze or critique your work. I don’t free write enough, but hope to utilize it more in the future as a brainstorming tool.

I plan on instituting all four of these strategies moving forward to improve my writing and increase my recognition as a writer.

The 5 Things I Know I Should Do When Writing But Don’t Actually Do

I am a hypocritical writer. After spending a lot of time in writing-related courses, I feel like I have a pretty good  understanding of what we are all supposed to do to make a good paper. And I agree with these things. Still, for some unintelligible reason, I don’t actually do them. So here’s a list of those things that I should do and tell others to do but don’t actually do:

1. Get started early.

Sometimes I get things done early but, when it comes to writing, I live in procrastination nation. (That was supposed to by funny.) We hear it again and again that we need to start our first drafts early so we have time to revise, and some classes even require drafts to be turned in a week or so before the final is due. But I can’t seem to write (at least, not write well) unless the assignment is due the next day. Which is horrible but, nevertheless, true. It’s led me to some pretty interesting all-nighters in Club UgLi and a few nearly-traumatic coffee overdose experiences.

2. Outline first.

“Turn in an outline of your paper on Tuesday.” Nope. That’s not happening. If an outline is assigned to me, I will probably just make up some bulleted list that won’t actually relate to my paper in any way and pretend that it does. I know deep down I really should outline, because it would help keep me on track and add a fragment of structure to my disheveled thought process. But whenever I try (which I don’t do often), I get stuck and just have to start writing the actual thing. Like many areas of my life, my organizational process when writing is a hot mess.

3. Journal every day.

This one I really wish I followed. I think journals are so important, and that they’re something I would really treasure when I’m old and wondering what I actually did in my college years. When I was younger, I was an avid journaler and would write pages of nonsense (including quotes that I thought were deep in the seventh grade, thoughts about the meaning of life, and who I sat with at lunch) in various Hello Kitty notebooks. Looking back on these now, they are seriously hilarious and I thank young-Allison for actually writing on the reg. But the excuse I give now  is the same excuse I give for just about everything else–that I don’t have the time.

4. Have a clear thesis.

I’m sorry, but if I could fit the main idea of my paper in 140 characters then I would’ve just tweeted it instead of putting out ten pages. Teachers would always tell me to have a thesis that follows the observation-argument layout and plainly presents the main idea of the paper. I have such a difficult time doing this. A lot of times I will write the whole paper, think it’s great, and realize I didn’t have a sentence that could be considered a thesis. At that point, I’ll usually just throw something in at the end of the introduction. This is probably not a great thing to do but, in my sassy defense, if they want the main idea of my paper then they can actually read my paper.

5. Write in Times New Roman.

Sure, I’ll turn in my stuff in 12-point TNR like any student. But all I can picture when I see that font is an old, gray man in a mauve robe sitting on a plush armchair smoking a pipe in a rustic library whilst reading a leather-bound book entitled “Antiquity.” Come on, people. This is the future. Let’s switch the Helvetica already.

tnr