Forming the Habit of Writing Well

Knowing the rules of an art is not the same as having the habit.

Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book

In my scheduled reading time (because it needs to be scheduled–spare time doesn’t exist in my current incarnation šŸ™‚ ), I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite books: How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren.

It’s a classic practical book in that its goal is to teach the reader how to read important books–books that are above the reader’s head–for greater understanding.

But there’s a lot of practical advice that can be transposed for other skills in which one wishes to get better.

Of course, the title of this post gives away the skill I have in mind.

One of the things that I really appreciate about this book is that right at the end of the first section, there’s a chapter titled “How to Be a Demanding Reader.” And in this chapter, Adler and Van Doren take a moment to talk about forming the habit of reading well (emphasis added):

Any art or skill is possessed by those who have formed the habit of operating according to its rules. This is the way the artist or craftsman in any field differs from those who lack his skill.

Now there is no other way of forming a habit of operation than by operating. That is what it means to say one learns to do by doing. The difference between your activity before and after you have formed a habit is a difference in facility and readiness. After practice, you can do the same thing much better than when you started. That is what it means to say practice makes perfect. What you do very imperfectly at first, you gradually come to do with the kind of almost automatic perfection that an instinctive performance has. You do something as if you were born to it, as if the activity were as natural to you as walking or eating. That is what it means to say that habit is second nature.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent countless hours of your life reading books and blogs about how to write well without spending an equal amount of time trying to actually write well.

And why is that? Why do some of us just read and move on to the next bit of advice?

If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because we’ve tried the doing and the doing is hard.

I know. Right about now, you’re complimenting me on my genius: “Boy, this guy is full of enriching insights. I mean, who would have thought that reading about digging ditches is easier than actually digging them.”

Please, bear with me.

So, the doing is hard. But it’s not just that. Reading about something and thinking we understand how it works brings a small sense of accomplishment of its own–just enough dopamine to keep our brains satiated. We probably even think something along the lines of, “Cool. The next time I write, I’ll remember this.”

And maybe we do, that next time we sit down to write.

Which might be tonight.

Or maybe tomorrow.

Or, you know, whenever we’re in the mood.

Hell, let’s be optimistic. Let’s say we manage to shift over to our writing app the very moment we reach the end of the helpful tip and start typing with the thing we learned firmly in mind.

Good Lord, does it feel like drudgery. It sure sounded easy, but it’s not coming out nearly as well as we intended. Frankly, it sucks sweat-soaked gym socks.

So, we shut down our app in frustration. All we wanted to do was write and turn that newly learned trick into a reality. All we wanted was to impress and be impressed with our new ability.

Seriously, why is that so effin’ hard?!

Well, as the title of this post implies, we haven’t formed the habit of writing well.

Oh, sure, maybe we have the habit of writing. We most certainly have the habit of reading about writing nailed. Like making snakes with Play-Doh, both of those things are easy!

In fact, our habit of reading in general is light years ahead of our habit of writing, despite the shortcomings pointed out in the Adler and Van Doren book. It’s something most of us have been doing since we were kids. It’s easy to forget that we are practically reading something every waking hour, be it a book, blog, or brochure. Of course it’s not painful to do so!

But writing well? I’m sorry to say, our desired skill level in writing doesn’t come as quickly as we think it should.

Why?

Let’s look back to the goal of Adler’s and Van Doren’s book: to teach the reader how to read important books–books that are above the reader’s head–for greater understanding.

Again, we’re reading every single day. But what if, instead of starting every morning with a cup of coffee and blogs on writing, we were to start reading things beyond our current level of comprehension?

How many times have we picked up and just as quickly put down great books like James Joyce’s Ulysses or Homer’s Iliad because they were hard to read? Too difficult to enjoy and immediately profit from?

They frustrate us because we’re not in the habit of reading beyond our current level of understanding. How to Read a Book exists, not only because that type of reading requires learning specific skills and principles, but also because most of us are not in the habit of continually pushing ourselves to reach just above our stations.

A Writer’s Digest article on the top ten ways to torture your characters can be milked for all its worth in minutes, but good luck pulling out the multiple themes of The Brothers Karamazov in a single sitting. Similarly, we can write an email or a Facebook post with ease, but it feels a hell of a lot different when it comes to writing that compelling story or poem.

Both of the latter require a new set of skills.

Both of the latter require a new level of understanding.

Just as reading is not reading well, writing is not writing well.

Our habits work against us.

Wouldn’t it be nice if that’s all it was? Intellectually, we know what’s stopping us, so we can just tell ourselves to take our medicine and do what needs doing.

But, no, it’s not just us who notice our lack of skill, right? We have that wonderful critical voice inside our head to remind us that everyone and their mother notice it too. And not only do those people see and strongly disapprove, but we’re pretty sure they’ll pick up their pitchforks and torches if we’re going to be so haughty as to even think we have something to say along with a presumption to try and say it well.

Yup. That’s right. We’re not just fighting our own lethargy of putting in the effort, but we’re also fighting what feels like very real people spitting on us from the sidewalks.

Why would anyone want to spend every single day trying to write well?

If you’re not feeling completely beat down by the negativity so far, indulge me for a moment longer as I quote another set of passages from How to Read a Book (again, emphasis added):

Reading is like skiing. When done well, when done by an expert, both reading and skiing are graceful, harmonious activities. When done by a beginner, both are awkward, frustrating, and slow.

[…]

Even the best instructor seems at first to be no help. The ease with which the instructor performs actions that he says are simple but the student secretly believes are impossible is almost insulting. How can you remember everything the instructor says you have to remember? Bend your knees. Look down the hill. Keep your weight on the downhill ski. Keep your back straight, but nevertheless lean forward. The admonitions seem endless–how can you think about all that and still ski?

The point about skiing, of course, is that you should not be thinking about the separate acts that, together, make a smooth turn or series of linked turns–instead, you should merely be looking ahead of you down the hill, anticipating bumps and other skiers, enjoying the feel of the cold wind on your cheeks, smiling with pleasure at the fluid grace of your body as you speed down the mountain. In other words, you must learn to forget the separate acts in order to perform all of them, and indeed any of them, well. But in order to forget them as separate acts, you have to learn them first as separate acts. Only then can you put them together to become a good skier.

[…]

Good writing is made up of so many different aspects, so many different skills, that we get caught up in the minutiae and lose the inherent joy the full act of writing brings.

Writing well should feel utterly enthralling!

So, again, why doesn’t it?

Rest assured, the pain we feel when we first try to write well is normal. As normal as when we first learned how to read and write the letters of the alphabet. That’s because we haven’t figured out how to do it yet.

But just as we no longer feel the pain of learning the alphabet (unless we’re trying to spell autochthonous), the more we practice the act of writing well, of figuring out how to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, the less pain we experience and the more joy we feel at the prospects of employing our newly honed skills.

Not that the pain ever goes away completely. It shouldn’t ever go away completely. If it does, that means we’ve stalled as writers. We’ve limited ourselves. We’ve become like the reader who never got past the Dick and Jane books.

But it should diminish from a roaring, paralyzing blaze to an steady, action-inducing flame.

And, just for clarification (or maybe confusion), it should never be the act of consciously attempting to implement a new skill which causes that pain.

Don’t do that.

We learn these skills separately, as we must, but we should always sit down to write with all of the stuff we’ve learned tucked away in the back of our minds, seeping out like an undetectable leak (sort of like carbon monoxide, but, you know, good for us) as it permeates the whole.

We should always sit down to write with the mindset of having fun and just telling a story, of writing with latent intentions, otherwise we’re feeding fuel to the fire.

Any pain we feel should come from realizing we’re still going to miss the mark and that we’ll have to stretch a little bit more to reach that next level.

Knowing that, I challenge all of us to look at that pain in a different way–as opportunity. When it comes to getting better, it’s not how unbearably far we have to go. It’s how much of the rip-roaring, soul-fulfilling journey we still have left! It’s all of the new and exciting ways we will soon harness to express what’s bubbling up inside of us!

Want to hear some more paradoxically good news?

Even if we spent every waking moment of our life with a pen in hand, we could never master all of the skills required to write perfectly.

“Writing mastery” is a phantom. It’s exists in name only.

Isn’t it awesome to know that we’ll never hit our peak? That we’ll never reach a level of boredom that many of us know oh-so-well from our other daily commitments?

And since we know no one writes perfectly, isn’t it even more awesome to know that we don’t have to do so in order to sell a buttload of books?

We can be satisfied knowing that just by learning about and absorbing a new set of skills, we’re getting better every time we sit down with an intention to write well.

Now, I ask, why wouldn’t we want to spend every single day trying to write well?

I’ll let Adler and Van Doren provide one final reason:

If your aim in reading is to profit from it–to grow somehow in mind or spirit–you have to keep awake. That means reading as actively as possible. It means making an effort–an effort for which you expect to be repaid.

Plenty of people in this world have shown it can be done. We can do it too.

We only have to be demanding writers.

We only have to focus on continual improvement.

We only have to form the habit of writing well.

-Phillip

6 thoughts on “Forming the Habit of Writing Well

  1. I struggle with making a habit of writing much less writing well šŸ˜‰ Just kidding (not really). The part about reading work that challenges you, that’s just above your head, reminds me of the old, tired adage of “write what you know.” When you think about it, that is so limiting. “Write what you want to know” is more exciting and stimulating, much like reading something you want to understand but takes effort. Years ago I took an online poetry writing course. I’ve always been intimidated by poetry; to me it seemed that only special people understood and could write poetry. But the class opened my eyes to the variety of poetry and the idea that with practice, I could write poetry well. But, like you point out, it takes practice, it takes making writing a habit, and it takes making writing well a habit.

    1. Great story about learning poetry, Marie. I’m the same way and only dipped my toes into it over the past couple of years–reading it mind you, not writing it. I still haven’t tried my hand at it except for a few times.

      And I wrote this for the reason most people write about self-improvement things–I’m trying to fix myself. šŸ™‚ I’ve been trying to form this particular habit for well over eight years and I feel like it’s *just* starting to take. The resistance is strong, but it’s nice to know that we can win just by staying in the game. šŸ™‚

      1. Me too. Every day I feel I get a little closer to being the writer I want to be šŸ™‚

  2. annnnnnd then you have to define “writing well.” (grin) For me it means when several readers pick up one of my novels, I’ve done everything I can to ensure all of them are readring the same story.

    1. Boom! Harvey, you hit on one of the most important things to put in an article like the one I wrote…and plainly forgot. šŸ™‚

      One ought to “define one’s terms” to avoid confusion. Looks like a follow-up article might be needed. And I think your definition is a mighty fine one.

  3. […] seeing a comment on my recent post from friend and prolific writer, Harvey Stanbrough, I realized that I didn’t do a very good […]

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