On Writing #11: Deliberate Practice Drill – Quick and Dirty Style Analysis

In everything from sword fighting to martial arts to painting to — yes — WRITING, one of the key ways the good get better and the better become experts is to analyze the styles of those they respect.

Perhaps you like Dan Brown’s “DaVinci Code”, perhaps for you the Sookie Stackhouse books are just the best series ever, perhaps you are amazed by Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow”, perhaps you cannot understand how Herman Melville creates such emotion and vibrance in every line. There unnumbered different writers, different readers. We all have different goals and different tastes, but if we want to write — and write well — this takes DELIBERATE PRACTICE.

I am not here to give a lecture on deliberate practice, to define it, or to discuss the “10,000 hours to expertise” theory. There are plenty of books, articles, and links out there about them.

I do need to put a disclaimer here first, though: Beginners who start deliberate practice find it boring, slow, and it usually causes them to drop out — it is much more important for beginners to just HAVE FUN. Deliberate practice is for later, after you love your hobby already, so you can get that much better at it. So if you’re new to writing, maybe you should skip this post and come back to it later, after you’re already in love with it.

In case you haven’t heard about Deliberate Practice, here is an overview, but this is not exhaustive:
– The best in any field get that way NOT because they work “harder” than everyone else, but because they work “smarter”
– Normal practice is not good enough — just playing your sport, writing a novel, going out and doing a gymnastics routine, playing a new song on a piano will get you good, but it will take a long time, and you may never be one of the best.
– Deliberate practice is the type of practice where you design, participate, and review drills that improve SPECIFIC ELEMENTS of your chosen field. This includes such things as: Playing blues scales in different tempos and rhythms, drilling specific kicks/angles/passes for soccer players, practicing that ONE MOST difficult step in your martial arts form for hours, etc, etc.
– There is no limit to the types of drills that can be created as part of deliberate practice, but some will be of more use than others.
– The best of the best usually grow to LOVE their drills and exercises for their own sake — because they can see how much the drills make them better.

For a more detailed discussion of Deliberate Practice, check here: http://www.suite101.com/content/deliberate-practice-a132437

Just remember, if you’re still new to writing, don’t let deliberate practice chase you away.

So now that you know what deliberate practice is, or at least you have a general idea, let me discuss one of the drills that I do to add to my toolbox and improve my writing skills:
Quick and Dirty Style Analysis

Whoever your favorite writers are, whether the critics love them or hate them, there is always something you can learn from a pro. In general, since books are made of words, these lessons involve tearing books apart — dissecting them, if you will — so you can see how the different parts of them work.

There are many ways to do this. I’ve designed perhaps 5 different drills, analyzing the structure within an individual chapter, the way chapters are organized in novels, shifts of POV, voice, mood, metaphorical analysis — but, really, I can’t fit them all in here.

So we’ll focus on one: Quick and Dirty Style Analysis.

I’ve already talked about style/voice at length in On Writing #3, but process described there is when you want to completely grok and work into your own DNA the way your favorite writing genius works. What if you don’t really have time for that. Or what if you’re comfortable with your current voice in the middle of a story and you don’t want to risk your voice changing dramatically half way through — but, at the same time, you can’t stand the thought of NOT learning, NOT getting better.

Well, this is where Quick and Dirty Style Analysis comes in.

1) Find your favorite book, or at least on that affected you greatly.
2) Find your favorite part of that book.
3) Copy your absolutely favorite paragraph/sentence out LONGHAND on a blank piece of paper.
4) Take this sentence apart. Find it’s structure. Find why it works.
5) Switch out nouns, verbs, adjectives in the same structure. The move the words around. Cut out articles, play with the phrase. See what does work, what doesn’t.
6) Repeat with more sentences until you think you understand how the person you are learning from does some of their best tricks.
7) Implement the techniques you’ve learned as you need them.

Note to beginners/intermediate writers: I’ve already said I don’t think you need to do this drill for the very good reasons stated earlier. But if you ignore me and do it anyway, Do NOT copy directly — or even summarize the work of — another writer in your own writing. Copying or summarizing even small parts of someone else’s work is Plagiarism. Don’t plagiarize. Ever. A little later on you will learn how to give an homage those who have influenced you, but this early don’t worry about it.

Okay, that’s it.

Wait! This isn’t easy, you say. No, it isn’t. It’s hard work. All of writing is hard work. But this drill is effective.

And let me be clear — a many writers do this, or do something similar.

Variations of this drill that I have seen people do (that I actually use myself) include the following:
A) Simply underlining/highlighting sections you like and coming back to read and chew on them again
B) Writing out paragraphs from your favorite book long hand just before bed and dreaming about them
C) Doing what William Faulkner used to do — picking up a book he considered an old friend, and turning to directly to your favorite passages, and imagining you are in the room with the writer.

All I have done here is introduce a little actual analysis to the process — and depending on your temperament — or depending on your mood that day (this is my case) — this drill may not suit your needs. Feel free to ignore it, change it, or mix it up. I sure do.

Art, after all, is not a science. It cannot be contained. And every writer is different.

Many of us, though, have stumbled into similar processes because reading and thinking critically about other peoples’ writing is a great way to get better at writing yourself. Simply put, IT WORKS.

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