But I have to admit that, so far, my very best writing years were–gulp!–more than a decade ago, when I was a roving columnist for the newspaper in Dubuque, Iowa.
Sometimes you flip through your old clips and wince, thinking, “How could I ever have written so awkwardly?” or “Why didn’t the editor save me from myself?” But when I nostalgically leaf through the yellowing clippings of the stories I wrote during those three years in Dubuque, I smile. Okay, it s a wistful smile (the clippings are yellowing and I am 40, after all), but I’m still pleased with and proud of a surprisingly high percentage of what I wrote back then.
Maybe I’m kidding myself and my writing skills really have declined because of age–and I’m like an old ballplayer (old being within shouting distance of 40) who tries a comeback only to find out the hard way he can’t see the strikes coming any more. I don’t think it’s age, though. Nor, before you start packing your worldly possessions and hitting the highway for Iowa, do I think I wrote my best because of the invigorating Iowa air. (“Is this heaven?” the ballplayer asked in Field of Dreams. “No, it’s Iowa,” came the reply. I liked Iowa just fine, but if it were heaven I wouldn’t have had to drive to Wisconsin just to find a good bookstore.)
No, I think I was in peak writing form simply because I did so much writing. Like the way to Carnegie Hall in the old joke, the way to better writing is “practice, practice, practice.”
Hit the Road, Jack–er, Dave
The good news here is that this is the easiest strategy for you to emulate to improve your own writing. You don’t have to turn the clock back to your late twenties. You don’t have to move to Iowa. You just have to write more.
Let me explain by painting a picture of the writing regimen my Dubuque job required. Unlike some newspaper columnists who sit in the office, read the paper, and then bang out their commentary on the world without ever having to go out into that world, my job involved hitting the road. Hard. I covered the back roads, small towns and colorful characters of northeastern Iowa, northwestern Illinois and southwestern Wisconsin. When setting up an interview, I’d often get directions along the lines of “turn at the fifth grain silo,” “drive right on across the stream,” and “go west until the road seems to run out–our place is about: two miles beyond there.”
More to the point, my job involved three such treks a week–three ideas to find and develop, three stories to be researched, three columns to crank out back at the office. I wrote three columns a week, 50 weeks a year, for a couple of years.
And then I took on a fourth column every week. This one, at least. I was allowed to write off the top of my head, without a drive to East Nowhere, Illinois, or Yahoo, Wisconsin. I just had to be funny in print–every single week.
Why did this punishing schedule produce some of my best writing, instead of resulting in a pile of formulaic, pounded-out clips that can’t yellow fast enough? For the same reason star tennis players spend their non-tournament days swatting ball after cannon-shot ball. Or musicians on their way to Carnegie Hall practice, practice, practice simple scales as well as challenging Tchaikovsky.
When you want to get good at something, you need to train your mind or your body–or, most often, both–by repetition. You do it over and over until what once was new and awkward becomes as smooth and natural as breathing. A tennis player trains her eye and arm so the sweep of a formidable forehand stroke no longer requires conscious effort; it’s as automatic as an eye blink. A violin virtuoso learns every quiver of every note not only by head but by heart, so the music flows as reflexively yet powerfully as his pulse.
So, too, a writer must write until the rhythm of words and the construction of an article become a habit. The more often you make your brain solve the tough problems of nonfiction writing, the more familiar those pathways to success will grow. You may not be aware of thinking, “Oh, yes. I solved a similar transition challenge this way in that article about colorfully painted grain silos . . . ,” but that’s how your synapses will start firing.
Writing That Pumps You Up
Of course, you don’t have to hold down a three-columns-a-week newspaper job in order to practice, practice, practice writing. (It doesn’t hurt though–the threat of not getting a paycheck and missing your mortgage payment if you don’t produce does powerfully focus your attention.) You don’t even have to be doing your writing for pay. Pumping up your writing muscles requires only that you write, not that somebody reads the results.
But that doesn’t mean you should just plant yourself at the keyboard every day and heedlessly hammer away until your typing fingers look like Schwarzenegger’s biceps. Quantity along isn’t sufficient; you must strive for the best possible quality, too, with every single thing you write.
Keep those athletic or musical analogies in mind. Tracy Austin didn’t get to be a tennis star by randomly slapping balls into the net; Jascha Heifitz didn’t just play “Three Blind Mike” off-key a few thousand times and then head for the concert stage.
You need to write everything you tackle as well as you possibly can, to pave your path toward writing excellence. Even if you’re knocking out a 500-word book review for a pays-in-copies literary quarterly, you should write as though you were undertaking a potential Pulitzer-nominee cover story for a glossy magazine that pays in five (heck, six!) figures. Don’t; let yourself “just bang it out”–lest: your writing muscles grow flabby from the poor exercise.
You also need to keep ratchetting up the challenge–just as a weighlifter adds more pounds to the machine once a strength level has been mastered. Push yourself to try more complex forms, more challenging assignments’ new ways of structuring an article.
This helps keep you fresh, too. After a while, at three columns a week, writing about colorful characters and off-the-beaten-path places began to seem stale. The temptation was to write the same story over and over, the same way-changing only the names, small towns and eccentricities. Instead, I made myself approach the stories in new ways. I took chances with leads, explored different ways of clearing with chronology, experimented with story-telling techniques more often found in fiction.
Reading is almost as important as writing to this task of pushing yourself forward. It was about this same time that I discovered writer John McPhee of The New Yorker; I devoured his books, studying how he shaped stories, set scenes and delivered details. I used to prowl the Journalism and Anthologies sections of used bookstores, grabbing dusty collections of old Esquire articles. I dissected the work of nonfiction masters ranging from Tom Wolfe to Lillian Ross, Edward Hoagland to A.J. Leibling. Reading good writers–like a tennis player studying videotaped matches or a chess player replaying games from a book–not only helps you discover new ways to tackle writing problems, but also stretches your creative horizons and inclines your mind in the direction of excellence.
But reading alone won’t suffice. Remember: You must sit down and craft your own excellent work.
Take a Letter, Please
If you don’t have a writing job, as I did, or even a steady stream of freelance assignments, that’s no excuse not to practice. Many of history’s great writers, after all, w rote not for high-paying magazines but for themselves! a few friends or loved ones. (To borrow examples from the realm of fiction, just look at the masterpieces of fantasy that began as bedtime stories or other informal tales for favored children: The Hobbit, Winnie the Pooh, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and many more.) Today we study these writers’ essays, journals and letters in literature classes; the originals were crafted with a much smaller audience in mind.
Letter-writing, for example, is often described as a lost art in this era of e-mail and cellular phones. Maybe you should revive it as a way to keep your writing muscles in tone. Imagine how surprised and pleased mom will be when an artfully crafted five-page letter chronicling life at your household plops into her mailbox!
Diaries and journals, by contrast, are popular these days; to journal has even become a verb. But most of the pop-culture enthusiasm for personal journals has emphasized the healing power of simply pouring your soul onto the page. Just write what you feel, that’s the prescription.
Letting it all hang out in your journal, heedless of style or structure, is actually a prescription for sloppy writing habits. Keeping a journal can be an excellent way of practicing your writing–just do it with the same care and discipline that you’d bring to an article assignment. Write your journal as though a reader generations hence might discover it, as though you expect your journal to someday be treated as literature
Whether you write letters, keep a journal or review books for your college literary magazine, the secret is to write regularly. Don’t let yourself be so proud of that five-page masterpiece sent to mom that you let five months slip by before you write again. (Besides, what will mom think?) Don’t start a journal, full of grand intentions, only to allow your thoughtful daily entries to deteriorate into dashed-off weekly or biweekly scrawls (“Got up. Had breakfast. Went to work. Watched TV. Wrote this journal entry.”).
Sit down at the keyboard, confront that blank screen or blank page, and write. Today, vow that you will write a little better, tackle something just a bit harder, than you did yesterday or the day before. Whether your regimen is three columns a week, five letters a week, or seven journal entries in seven days, it takes discipline.
That discipline, those habits of mind, will serve you well as you become a selling writer. You don’t get to stop practicing, or to slack off, when your work starts resulting in paychecks. The rewards just get better, like the quality of your writing.
Practice, practice, practice is the only way to get to Carnegie Hall–or onto the pages of that magazine you dream of writing for–and the only way to stay there.
Hmmm. Maybe I need to get back to three columns a week myself. Was that a left at the fifth grain silo, or a right after crossing the creek?