Time and again, creative writing students cite the difficulty inherent in carving out times for practice and development as one of the chief reasons for their frustration with their progress. It’s such a common problem for those working on developing their craft to a professional level that Writers’ Digest has multiple articles (1, 2) on the topic. No matter what the take on the subject, writers often get the same advice: make sure you set aside time, make sure you practice every day, make sure you read other writers whose work you admire, to understand what it is that you are reaching for. And, often, the advice comes with the added note that it takes a lot of textual exposure and practice before you begin to lock in to the style and structure that you need to propel yourself to the next level.
It’s just a pity things don’t always work that way.
The Myth of Practice Time
Most of the advice about making time to write is built around the comparison between writing and athletic or musical talents, and that is exactly why the advice is trouble. In a lot of ways, writing is like those other skill sets–it is technique based, it requires both muscle memory and active critical thinking in a real-time state, and the performance of it can be broken down and discussed in ways that help educate the practitioner so that they make better choices at other times. Where writing is different from those other skills is in the cost and the balance of life activities to practice effort.
By and large, musicians and athletes do not live in environments that require them to use their talents day in and day out in the service of goals other than the development of that talent. An athlete might also work a labor-oriented job that is physically taxing, but it tends not to work the exact same muscles and techniques that they need when they step into practice later, and if it does, it does not work them with the intensity of exercise. The same goes for musicians when it comes to developing their timing and dexterity.
Creative writers, on the other hand, live in a world where they are immersed in the use of their skills at every turn. From workplace communication to training and instruction to scheduling, email, social media, and keeping tabs on current events in the world, reading and writing are immersive cultural activities that can not be separated from life, and if a writer is to capture the essence of life, they can not be.
Realistically, this means that carving out a dedicated practice time can leave writers feeling frustrated and spent, because they may have the goal of reaching 350 words in a short session and calling it a day, just to get the practice, only to find themselves in a situation where their kids, work, family, and household management has put them in the position of writing 2000 or even 5000 words in a day, so that last 350 is just not there.
Making Practice in Real Time
The solution is skills transference. The secret to practicing your creative writing is finding the opportunity to practice it as an aspect of life, to make those tropes, descriptions, and structures into guideposts that not only help increase the effectiveness of communication in those other genres, but that also allow the writer to acknowledge and to nurture those skills as the opportunities for practice present themselves. By living in an ever-engaged state where literary practices more generally become specific opportunities to hone an audience-appropriate set of artistic traits, creative writers not only carve out room for craft development, they move themselves toward having a more robust creative stamina that is capable of engaging in a higher workload as it develops.