Wednesday, September 23, 2015


A good question has been coming up lately when I've been talking to students. It has been asked by first-year students as well as professional master's students and follows naturally from my advice that you should practice your writing even when you don't have an assignment due, just as you should go for a jog even if you've got no place to be or a race to win. How, the students ask me, can they know they are making progress? How do they know that they are doing it right?

When I say a question is "good", I don't mean that in the ironic sense of being stumped by it. I usually mean that I have a good answer to it, and that's also the case here. Now, the first answer is of course to seek feedback from others on a regular basis. If your teachers are too busy, then ask your fellow students. Give them simple tasks like reading a paragraph out loud to you and identifying the key sentence. If this is easy for them, you're doing something right. You can also ask them for some frank but constructive criticism.

But don't let everything depend on outside criticism. Remember that it is your style we're talking about. Learn how to evaluate your own writing as well.

To see how this can be done, begin with our usual paradigms of "practice" and "training": music and sports. If you sit down at the piano every day for twenty minutes and practice Bach's thirteenth invention, as I have, there will be little question in your mind that you've made progress after a few weeks. The impossible becomes possible; the painful becomes pleasurable. Likewise, if you go for a five kilometer run every other day, as I also have, you won't be in much doubt about whether your stamina is improving. Your legs and your lungs will give you some pretty direct feedback about your progress.

In both cases, of course, your "learning curve" may taper off. At some point, you may feel that regular practice is merely maintaining your form. And, in some cases, working without a teacher or coach and pushing yourself to reach ever high goals, you may find yourself straining a little; you may even suspect that you are injuring yourself, or developing a bad habit. This, of course, is when you should seek advice and guidance. In the meantime, relax your regimen a little.

The most important aspect of this kind of self-assessment, to my mind, is the pleasure you take in your writing. Are the twenty-seven minutes you spend working on a particular paragraph increasingly enjoyable? When you read your paragraph out loud at the end of your writing session, does it give you pleasure to form the words and to hear them spoken? (This is like paying attention to the sound of your music or the pain of your muscles.) Remember that writing is something you are training your body to do; it is a coordination of your hands with your mind through the heart. The body is an excellent, natural instrument of "feedback". Listen to it. Feel yourself improving.


Anonymous said...

Will you include this content in the re-engineering workshop? Very useful.

Thomas said...

Yes, of course.