Training to Become a Better Writer, Part 1

Specificity Principle

Do you want to get better at something?  Then I have a term for you.  

Do you want to get better at writing?  Awesome.  Keep Reading.    

The Specificity Principle is a term that originated in the fitness industry.  It simply states that to improve at a task, one must practice that task.  If you want to do more pull-ups, you need to make pull-ups a part of your workout routine.  If you want to get better at writing, then you need to write.  Sounds like that old saying “practice makes perfect.”  Sounds simple enough.  

The truth is  slightly more complicated, but still simple.  Take running track:  If a runner wants to get better at the 100m dash, then that is the event they need to practice.  Running a steady mile is not going to help with sprinting nearly as much as practicing sprints will.  If we have two runners, completely equal in every aspect, but one spends their days practicing the mile and the other spends their days practicing their 100m dash, then it’s pretty obvious who will be better at the 100m after a few weeks of practice.  

Let’s go back to our pull-up example and imagine that we are looking at a rock climber.  If they want to get better at climbing, then they should remember the Specificity Principle.  Pull-ups are a good starting exercise because it’s a similar motion.  They would benefit more from practicing finger-tip pull-ups (because it’s even closer motion to rock-climbing).  However, they would benefit the most by actually practicing rock climbing!  No amount of finger-tip pull-ups can substitute for all the nuances of the real deal.    

Hopefully by now you’re realizing that the old saying of “practice makes perfect” doesn’t quite fit.  We have to focus on the right kind of practice.  

I swam competitively for much of my life.  We spent some time on “dryland” exercises, like calisthenics, yoga and lifting weights, but those were complements to what we did in the pool.  For aquatic sprinters, this meant doing high-intensity, stroke specific swimming.  We wanted to get better at swimming fast, so that’s what we spent 80% of our time doing.  

The Specificity Principle is simple–simple but powerful–and it applies to so much more than just fitness.  It is relevant when learning any kind of task.  Whether it’s running, writing, swimming, billiards, playing the guitar, croquet, or learning a new language, pretty much any task applies.

What does that mean for writers?  

  1. Write what you want to get better at. 
  2. The majority of your time should be spent writing.

First Point:  If you want to write novels, then you need to spend the vast majority of your effort on writing novels.  If you want to get better at writing screenplays, then you have to write screenplays.  Don’t spend 90% of your time writing short stories (unless you want to get better at short stories).

Second Point:  Write.  Don’t spend 90% of your available time reading books or blogs about writing.  Reading books or blogs about writing are supplements at best and distractions at worst.  Once you have a decent grasp of grammar, structure, characterization, etc, then you really need to write.  

If I would’ve spent my younger years reading books on swimming technique and theory, I may have been knowledgeable, but I would have been a laughable swimmer.  I wouldn’t have had any coordination or strength, or endurance.  I would have known how to swim but I wouldn’t have been able to swim.

To all the aspiring writers, to all the aspiring authors out there:  If you want to get better at writing, then at some point you have to focus on writing.    

Do what you want to get better at, and do it often. 

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