I’ve been watching a lot of Olympics coverage. I also recently reread A Sense of Where You Are, John McPhee’s profile of Bill Bradley when he was at Princeton (with a brief look at his 1964 Olympic stint, too).
All this has me thinking about training. Describing Bradley practicing alone, McPhee wrote, “he moves systematically from one place to another around the basket, his distance from it being appropriate to the shot, and he does not permit himself to move on until he has made at least ten shots out of thirteen from each location.” In high school, Bill Bradley got a set of keys to the gym and “set a schedule for himself that he adhered to for four full years — in the school year, three and a half hours every day after school, nine to five on Saturday, one-thirty to five on Sunday, and, in the summer, about three hours a day.”
All that drilling gave him near perfect accuracy with free throws and an automaticity about the court that let him think multiple moves ahead. He’d pass to teammates before they even knew they’d be open. Good performance requires great practice.
I’ve been thinking about that because I’d like to become better at the craft of writing. I know that requires practice, just as basketball requires practice. But what does writing practice look like? What should I be doing for 3.5 hours per day (3 in the summer) to get better at this?
Blogging is one form of practice. Writing 500-800 word essays close to daily makes a person much faster at writing 500-800 word essays.
But blogging is a “scrimmage,” a practice version of the full performance. It’s not a drill like Bradley’s rotation around the hoop. Some of the biggest breakthroughs in any field come from isolating a specific skill and working to get better at it. So I’ve been trying to picture writing “drills.”
I have a few things I do occasionally that fall in this category, and that I should probably do more frequently. One is forced tightening. When I blog, I don’t worry (much) about how long my thoughts go. But over the years, my USA Today columns have had to get shorter and shorter. Back in 2002 they let me go close to 1100 words sometimes. Now the space has shrunk (literally — the paper is smaller) and they use more varied design elements. I only get 700 words. It is pretty hard to quote multiple people and use statistics to make an argument in 700 words — so my first drafts tend to be more like 850. Cutting to 700 requires some strategy but tends to hone things. I could try to cut all my blog posts by 10-20 percent. Or I could take random passages published elsewhere by other people and make them less wordy!
While working on my novel, I’ve been going through and trying to use better words — more exact words that don’t require adverbs to convey my thoughts. Doing this with random passages (or my own writing) could be a drill.
Ben Franklin supposedly analyzed the structure of famous passages. He’d study them, cut them apart and paste them back together, seeing how one bit flowed from another. Reading in general is good practice — though probably reading can be done better sometimes than others. I’ve been trying to read with a pen. I look for good phrases, good construction, or things that aren’t done as well as they might be.
For those of you who are also writers, I’m curious what sort of “drills” you’ve come up with to improve your craft. How do you practice to get better?