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  • Writer's pictureTeresa Widdowson

Practice Makes Perfect

Updated: Mar 3

Piano keyboard with flowers a bouquet of flowers on them.

I have a lot of hobbies, and one of them is playing the piano. I didn’t start taking lessons until I was in my late twenties. When I was a child, we never had a piano at home, so lessons were out of the question. But when I ventured out on my own, and could afford it, I rented one and started taking lessons.

If you’ve ever taken lessons to learn to play a musical instrument, or have children that have, you know that one of the famous directives from your teacher is often, Practice Makes Perfect. But that’s not exactly true when it comes to music. If you practice a certain musical phrase over and over, but are doing it incorrectly, you are simply reinforcing your errors. I’ve learned the hard way that to improve, I have to Practice Perfectly—not just practice. If I play something wrong, I start over immediately, slow down until I can play it perfectly, and then practice the section of music at that sometimes excruciatingly slow speed until I can play it at the desired tempo.

To be fair, you don’t have to be perfect with everything you ever play when you practice a musical instrument. Sometimes you are honing the flexibility of your fingers or learning how to sight-read better (which means playing a song you’ve never seen before). And even if you get the notes right, there's still tone, dynamics and sometimes pitch to worry about. In writing, it can be a similar process. For me, writing this blog is a kind of practice—flexing my writing brain and creative muscles.

Writing is not like playing an instrument. It is almost impossible to write anything perfectly the first time. When you’re writing a book, you normally have a pretty ugly first draft. It may have moments of brilliance, but it’s definitely not something you would show to the world. If you’re lucky, by the third draft, it’s ready for proof-reading. But sometimes in the middle of that third re-write, you think of a different direction you could take part of the story. Or you find something you didn’t see before that you then have to fix, which affects lots of other things that then need to be tweaked.

Over the years, I’ve discovered several activities that I feel have helped improve my writing. Maybe you will find them useful in your writing journey or are simply curious about mine? My first recommendation is to read, read, read. Reading helps you understand what works and what doesn’t, or simply what works for you. Read books in a genre you love, or a genre you want to write in, and when you find one that you can’t put down, start analyzing why. Dissect the book. Ask yourself why it works. What is it about it that makes you so eager to turn the page and makes you resist putting it down? Make a list of what you find and try to apply those techniques to your writing.

Read about writing. There are some very helpful books, blogs, and even YouTube videos out there. One of the best books on writing I’ve ever read is Stephen King’s, On Writing. Not only is it an interesting read, but it’s full of really useful advice, even if you don’t want to write horror books. But be careful. There are also some not so great books about the writing process. Before you decide to take someone’s advice about how to write, check out what books they’ve written and read one of them. If you don’t like their writing style, why would you accept their advice on how to write? If they’ve never written a book in the genre you want to write in, their book on writing may not help much. And if they’ve never written any books other than books on how to write, is that really someone you want to learn from?

Don’t be afraid to fail. Odds are you may not like your first book, or blog, or poem, or whatever it is you’re writing. That’s OK. Try again. Read more, learn more, write more. Hone your writing chops. No one climbs Mount Everest on the first try. It takes a lot of training and preparation just to get to base camp. Writing a book takes time and writing a good book can take years.

Be nice to yourself. We are so hard on ourselves sometimes. We tell ourselves things in our head that we would never say to one of our friends. At least I do—sometimes. I will never finish this book. I will never be as good as so-and-so. Imposter syndrome is an evil little demon that sits on my shoulder all the time. I constantly have to flick him away and just get on with my writing—especially if I’ve just finished reading a really great book. It immediately makes me think to myself, Who do I think I am? I will never write a book as fantastic as that. And maybe I won't. But I am my own person. I have to remind myself that I write because I love it. I hope that some people out there in reader-land enjoy my books. That’s all I can hope for while I continue to write and try to improve.

Ask for help. Your friends and family will probably tell you your writing is good even if it’s not. They love you. They care about you. They don’t want to hurt your feelings. So, try to get feedback from people who don’t know you that well, or honest friends and family who will tell you if your writing sucks (in a nice way, of course). You’ll never improve if everyone keeps lying to you, telling you everything you write is wonderful.

Did you ever watch American Idol when Simon Cowell was on the show? Some people thought he was mean. But although I didn’t always love his delivery, I liked it when he told the truth to people who couldn’t sing. It would be mean to tell them they sang like an angel when they couldn’t carry a tune. Some people, unfortunately, simply can’t match a pitch. They will never be singers. But even if your writing isn’t great in the beginning, it’s something you can learn to improve.

All the suggestions above have helped me, and they’re things that can apply to all areas of your life. You don’t have to be a writer to learn to accept failure and try again, to be more patient with yourself, to smack down that self-deprecating inner voice, to ask for help when you need it, or to be willing to study and learn to get better at something.

Practice Makes Perfect—or at least, practice makes better. Perfectionism is overrated and unachievable. No one’s perfect, but we can all strive to be better.

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