How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?

You might have heard this story already. But it makes its point so beautifully, it’s worth repeating.  A tourist stops a famous conductor on a street in Manhattan. The tourist doesn’t recognize the maestro and innocently asks how to get to Carnegie Hall. The conductor, without missing a beat, looks at him and says: “Practice.”

Turn the conductor into a publisher, the destination a bookstore rather than a concert hall and the answer is the same: practice. One of the best ways to improve your writing—both the process and the result—is to isolate the elements of a good manuscript and to practice until you really understand each of them.

In much the same way that practicing scales for a pianist, knife skills for a chef, or batting skills for a baseball player creates competence and, eventually, mastery, working on each of the elements of a picture book in turn moves you toward deeper understanding and closer to the kind of competence that makes the writing process flow.  

I think there are four basic categories to think about when you’re practicing.

  • Idea – which encompasses theme
  • Structure – which include plot
  • Characterization
  • Language – down to the sounds the letters make.

There are more aspects to consider of course. Point of view, voice, description, and others are all important. But if understand and become comfortable working with the above four, you’ll improve the quality of your writing dramatically.

Here’s something else to think about when you’re considering the best way to improve your work. It’s the idea of practice, the noun, as a habit that puts a structure around practice, the verb. You practice by doing the work. You develop a practice by deliberately carving out the space, by scheduling the time, and committing to the work regardless of what else is going on in your life.

Following this strategy makes it easier to accomplish what you want to accomplish. And your work is simplified because practicing is not a choice that you have to make again and again; you have practice as a placeholder into which you move. If it’s Tuesday at noon, it must be time to do writing practice. Or if it’s Thursday at 9:00, you know it’s time to sit down and practice your technique.

It’s not the same as the writing you do to free your voice, to keep yourself in the zone, to express yourself. It’s a very deliberate, very conscious attempt to gain competence in one area of your work. And it moves you closer to being able to write the exceptional manuscript you have in your heart.

It doesn’t have to be unpleasant. Although you could slog away for hours a day, you’d probably become so turned off you’d never want to write again. But you don’t need to put yourself through that torture. You don’t even need to practice every day. Just a few hours a week will make a difference to your work. The important thing is to make an appointment with yourself, to make a commitment. And then keep it.

Before you know it, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a practiced—and, if all goes well, published—writer.

I would like to suggest that you set aside two or three 1-hour time slots each week for your writing practice. I encourage you to write these “appointments” down—in ink!—in your calendar or scheduler and treat them as seriously as you would any other appointment. That’ll help get you into the practice of writing regularly.

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