June 22, 2011

Shortcuts to Good Writing, Part Four: Efficiency

Posted in shortcuts tagged , , , at 4:07 am by Rebecca Hein

There’s a controversy among cellists about bowing and tone production: should the horsehair be flat on the string or should the bow be tipped toward the player, leaving only a portion of the hair on the string? The underlying assumption is that sound is affected by how much horsehair rests on the string.

This may be valid, but far more important is how to position the bow so that it does most of the work. With maximum efficiency thus assured, most of your energy goes into playing rather than battling the laws of physics.

In writing, too, it’s possible to position yourself for maximum efficiency. Why struggle with flow when daily freewriting can take care of this? Why start your writing sessions scattered and distracted when a ten-minute warmup will settle your body and focus your mind? Why battle transitions when lack of practice is the underlying problem? For most difficulties in writing, there’s an easier way through than we first realize. The key is to get going, ignore the inner critic—or override it with more freewriting than you ever thought you could do—and open yourself to the unexpected.


June 15, 2011

Shortcuts to Good Writing, Part Three: Targeted Practice

Posted in shortcuts tagged , at 3:06 pm by Rebecca Hein

Recently I decided to improve my nature descriptions. Here in Wyoming, the land and sky are magical and, like Monet and his desire to capture outdoor light on canvas, I must convey the wonder of a luminous cloud at sunrise.

In music, you can choose between practicing a specific passage and working on the technical problem in that passage. If the former, you master that passage but not subsequent ones like it. Instead, you can identify the skill needed, isolate it into an exercise or drill, and polish it until you can apply it anytime. Then you’ve solved the whole problem.

So for my nature scenes, instead of deferring the struggle until it confronts me in my current book, I plan to try, try, and try again to write perfect descriptions, in practice-writing mode where I am free and can throw away my attempts if they don’t please me.

June 8, 2011

Shortcuts to Good Writing, Part Two: Be Systematic

Posted in shortcuts tagged , at 2:24 pm by Rebecca Hein

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell notes that 10,000 hours are required to gain proficiency in any endeavor. He’s right.

Yet there’s more to this picture than just the time we put in, as I learned a number of years ago with the cello. I’d been playing and teaching twenty years before I saw the whole fingerboard in my mind’s eye, and this comprehensive map showed me where to place my fingers. For my students, I then telescoped this ability into five years or less through finger patterns, a systematic study of the fingerboard. Traversing the same path again and again, they played three sets of three notes in the most common configuration of fingers, up and down the string.

Writers can do the same by practicing a single skill many times. For example, if “scene” is your weakness, devise a short daily exercise where you describe all six senses your character is experiencing: touch, taste, smell, sight, sound, and instinct. Do this 100 times and see how quickly you progress.

%d bloggers like this: