REVIEW: How to Be a Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play (Writer’s Digest Books 2010).

Over the last couple months, my goal has been simple: to engage in what Geoff Colvin, author of the book Talent is Overrated, calls “deliberate practice.”

I wrote about this briefly in a previous post, but it’s so important that I want to touch on it again. According to Colvin, and other researchers in the field of expertise studies, “deliberate practice” is a common thread that links high-achievers in all fields. “Deliberate practice” is not simply repeating a task over and over again. It is rather the practice of identifying weaknesses and deliberately working to fix or improve them.

This is hard, because it means actively pursuing those things that are outside of our comfort zones. It’s especially hard as a writer to do this, because so many of the elements of fiction work together in a way that makes them hard to work on in isolation.

This idea of deliberate practice is something James Scott Bell mentions in his writing handbook, The Art of War for Writers. I’ve blogged about this cool book and how it helped me set writing goals here and here. Bell suggests you build your own “Writing Improvement Program” by:

  1. identifying exemplars you admire and using them as guides
  2. seeking out and assimilating comments on your work
  3. creating a self-study plan to overcome your weak areas as a writer

Victoria Strauss and Barbara Baig make similar suggestions in this article from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America website: .

In addition, Baig’s article, “The Mastery Path for Writers: A New Approach to Building Your Skills,” which you can download from her website, further explains this premise, and is a great primer on the field of expertise studies and how it relates to your writing practice. Both Bell and Baig emphasize the importance of finding exemplars and using them as guides.

About my “Writing Tips: The Best Lessons from the Best Books on Writing” Series

The goal of this series is pretty simple. I’m a lover of craft books. They fill my shelves. They cover my desk. They sit behind my toilet. They’re an obsession. They’re also the most awesomest procrastination tool ever. Which is good for you, and bad for me. I’m a recovering craft-book junky and this series is my therapy. I’m going to pass along the best pieces of advice from some the best books on writing that I’ve read. These blog posts are based on my own interpretation of the best writing ideas/ advice/ lessons from the best books on the craft of writing.

Given this goal of mine, what I really wanted was to find a book that would help me identify my weaknesses while giving me exercises to help improve them. Unfortunately, I haven’t found one yet. But I did find a couple books that are worth talking about because of the writing epiphany they’ve led me to.

Considering Baig’s own understanding of this process, I decided to start with her book, How to Be A Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play (Writer’s Digest Books 2010).

Barbara Baig How to Be a Writer

This book is a distillation of exercises and practices that Baig has developed over a 30 year career, teaching writing at such places as the Harvard Divinity School, the MFA program at Lesley University.

Baig’s overall premise is a great one. As she observes, “the writing instruction most adults got in school was focused on the characteristics of the finished product, rather than the skills needed to produce it.” According to Baig, this mind-set creates a need to “get it right,” as opposed to one that fosters practice, experimentation, and growth.

Baig’s premise is one we’ve seen before, and very similar to the idea that is at the heart of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, which I blogged about here. Whereas Goldberg just wants to get us freewriting, Baig hones in on specific aspects of the creative process through what she calls focused freewriting. If I had to compare the books, I’d say that Goldberg just wants you to write, while Baig wants you to write for the purpose of improving certain creative skills.

Baig’s book is divided into 5 chapters:

  • Section 1: Getting Started
  • Section 2: A Writer’s Powers
  • Section 3: Moving Toward Readers
  • Section 4: Required Writing
  • Section 5: Staying on the Path

Over the course of the book, Baig moves from a focus on the writer and his or her world, to a focus on the world of the story itself. Each of these chapters contains a selection of exercises for developing your creative faculties and specifically those faculties she believes are important to writers. Her exercises focus on such things as writing from memories, exploring your expertise as a source of inspiration, building observation skills, nurturing your creativity, and developing your visual imagination.

Baig makes a useful distinction between what she calls the writer’s “content-mind” and the writer’s “craft-mind.” The content-mind “is the part of the writer’s mind that comes up with ideas for things to writer about,” while the craft-mind “communicates what she has to say.” Baig’s book is, by her own admission, focuses more on “content-mind” development exercises, but that does not mean it is a book for beginners. It is rather a book for writers who want to get better at taking their observations and putting them into words–and that’s pretty much all of us!

Here’s one of Baig’s content-development exercises:

Practice: Waking Up the Content-Mind

Start freewriting… Remember to keep the pen (or your fingers) moving, and to let go of any critical voices in your head. 

Now, as you writer, try also to let go of any concerns about language, and to put all of your attention into the material that is coming to you. … It doesn’t matter what kind of materials you are getting; and it doesn’t matter if you move from one kind of material to another.

What’s important here is that you concentrate on putting down on the page whatever your content-mind has to give you right now, on the material itself, rather than on the words you are using.

After your ten minutes (more, if you like) are up, take a few minutes to notice what happened when you did this exercise. Could you feel your content-mind waking up a little bit, perhaps stretching out more than it usually does?

And here’s one of Baig’s more craft-minded exercises:

Practice: Story Movement

Choose a character and write down a simple story situation for him or her, one you take from your reading of stories or from your own invention. Use only a few sentences to sketch the situation. NOw tell something that happens to the character, or soemthing the character does to respond to the situation. Again, use only a few sentences. Now answer the question: And then what happens…?

If you like, keep asking and answering that question until your story comes to a stop.

Baig’s book is full of smart exercises like these. And while Baig’s book isn’t going to teach you how to plot a horror novel, her exercises are going to help you practice being a writer. And by practicing being a writer, you never know, you might become one!

Baig explains her approach when she writes, “There’s another reason I have chosen to teach only content skills in this book: The best way to learn a complex activity is to break it down into its component parts and then practice each one of those skills separately.”

And that’s exactly what her books does. She breaks the craft of writing down into small, fundamental skills for the purposes of helping writers lay a solid foundation upon which they can continue to grow and develop.

Questions for You:

Did you try either of these exercises? What do you think? How do you cultivate an attitude of play towards your creative work? Do you engage in deliberate practice? If so, how? Do you have any writing exercises that you use on a regular basis? Do you have a particular exercise that really helped you that you would like to share?


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