Everyone who speaks much English knows the expression practice makes perfect. However, I find the expression “perfect practice makes perfect,” generally attributed to Vince Lombardi, is more useful. Most of my experience with it comes from the equine world, but this modified expression applies equally well to the world of writing.
A Concrete Example
Let me start with an equine example. If you don’t like or know horses, don’t worry. I try to keep out the technical details and just keep it simple.
Say I am working with a horse and we need to back up in a straight line. So every ride, I back my horse and she swings her butt to the right. I say what the heck, she backed up, right? Practice makes perfect. So I do it again and again, her butt swinging right each time. We get tired and quit for the day. The next day we repeat. And the day after. Each time her butt swings right.
Do you see the problem here? I may think I’m practicing and getting better at backing, but instead I’m teaching my horse to swing her butt to the right while backing. The more we repeat the exercise wrong, the more I engrain those bad habits. And not just in her. There’s a reason she’s swinging her butt–I’m telling her to. So whatever it is I’m doing that isn’t good enough, I’m building muscle memory to do the wrong thing. If I get on another horse, it’s very likely I would quickly train him to swing his butt right as well, since I’m so used to a right butt swing back.
Here’s where perfect practice comes in. It doesn’t mean every try is perfect, but it does mean we improve over all. Say instead of repeating the same thing over and over, I’m working to back better. My horse swings her butt right, but each time just a little bit less. Sometimes I overcompensate and her butt goes left. I praise the heck out of every try that goes better than before and ignore the occasional oopsie. I quit for the day before we’re exhausted and drained, and I mix in plenty of exercises we’re better at so we don’t get down on ourselves. That’s perfect practice. As long as I keep making progress, we’re doing it right.
Back to Writing
So how does this apply to writing? The idea is the same. We need to keep making progress if we’re going to have that perfect practice. Sometimes we focus on one particular area, accepting more flaws in others. That’s okay, as long as we keep on getting better somehow. Ideally we maintain some awareness of what’s being let go of in the process, so we don’t “forget” what still needs work.
Any time we allow ourselves to do the wrong thing over and over without improvement, we engrain that bad habit. Once those habits are thoroughly engrained, it’s going to take a lot more effort to remove them. Any time we allow ourselves to do the wrong thing over and over without improvement, we engrain that bad habit. Once those habits are thoroughly engrained, it’s going to take a lot more effort to remove them. At the same time, we need to allow ourselves room to make mistakes. We can’t do everything right at once in the beginning. And there will always be room for improvement in our work, even when we’re best-selling authors. Becoming overly critical is as dangerous to our growth as being insufficiently critical.
We need to balance our challenges with successes, our awareness of our flaws with equal awareness of our strength. We need to accept that some days are harder than others and some skills come more easily than others. Our focus needs to be on the progress we do make more than on the progress we still need to make.
Unlike the horse example, where there is a concrete guideline of straight versus crooked, writing is more diffuse and fluid. Something might be right one time but absolutely wrong another. If we want to improve as writers, we really need a skilled editor or a competent peer review group to improve. Because we easily become blind to our own flaws and strengths, having other eyes point them out helps us grow more quickly and completely.
Remember that every writer is different. An exercise that fails for one person might be just right for someone else. The only way to know is to evaluate the progress, preferably by having people who are honest with you tell you if it’s working. A writer whose skills are improving will continually turn in better drafts. Sure, we can have bad days where things go wrong. Or we might let our focus slide on one skill while it’s aimed at another. But overall we’re making progress somehow.
As my previous horse instructor, Ron James, says, “Progress–not perfection.” As writers we want as close to perfection as we can get on those final drafts before we post, submit to a publisher, or self-publish, but in between, we just need progress on each revision, whether it takes one or twenty or a hundred.
A Series Is Born
My goal here is not to give you a bunch of vague theory, but to provide concrete examples of ways to improve our practice methods. I also want to look at ideas for concrete tools for problems many of us face at one time or another.
Do I know everything? Definitely not. I’m learning here just like you are. I am simply trying to share some of the experience I do have and I hope to learn from the experiences others of you have. I also want to make sure you’re being honest with yourself about how you practice. My hope is that the series can expose some of you to ways to turn some of your struggles into success, whatever they may be and whatever tools you find are most effective for you.