How Do You Get There From Here?

Practice makes perfect.

Whatever you choose to call it—aphorism, adage, maxim, idiom, cliché—that saying is largely accepted as truth. But it’s not particularly true. I will certainly concede that practice will make you better at what you are trying to do, but to say it will get you to perfection assumes that you know what to do to achieve perfection.

A quick example might better demonstrate what I mean. Right now, I have achieved a certain level of skill as a writer. Let’s call that level, X. So I write. And I keep writing. Sometimes I don’t do as well as I could, and the story I produce is, oh maybe, X-2. Some days I’m really on my game and I might produce a story that as good as X+2. But most of the time, the stories I write are an X. If I continue to practice, practice, practice, at some point in the future I’ll be a better writer—maybe X+1. But as a writer, my goal is to be a much better writer…let’s call that level Y.

Is practice enough to get me there? I could explain and equivocate, but the answer is, NO. Because at some point you need to acquire the knowledge to know what your weaknesses are AND the knowledge to fix them.

So think back to your childhood. I’ll use the example of learning to throw a football. When I was three or four years old, I started watching football with my dad. When I wanted to learn to play, he bought me a shiny, blue Nerf football. So how did I start? I walked outside and gave a mighty heave. The ball probably flew a foot or so. Now, if I’d relied solely on practice to get better, I’m sure I would have discovered how to hold the ball—eventually. I might even have been able to get some distance on a throw. But I never would have been any good. But that’s not what happened. After that first toss left me frustrated, my father picked up the football and started to show me the basics.

That is to say… he taught me.

While practice is the most fundamental tool we have to get better, it will only get us so far. We have to work to improve our skills by learning. We must learn what we do right, what we do wrong, what we do inconsistently. But more importantly we must learn what other people do, whether it works for them, whether we think it will work for us.

I won’t even try to count the ways to do this. There are classes, workshops, books, magazines, websites, critique groups (where there are writers better than you), forums discussion groups, honest friends…

I need to decide what I will do this year to get closer to Y.

What about you? What are your plans, in the next year, to get better at your craft?