Way back, before I even knew for sure that writing was what I wanted to do for a living, a friend who was then editor for a feature section in the Indian Express, based in Madras, interrupted a random crib about a badly written newspaper story with a suggestion: “You think you can do better? Try it!”
At her prodding, I spent a couple of hours trying to figure out just what was wrong with the story, and then rewriting it. She took my effort, ripped it — deservedly — to bits, and left me with a suggestion: ‘Everyday, try rewriting one news story, one editorial piece, one sports story, and one of some other type.’
The exercise was a drag, to start with. But comes a time when the process begins to fascinate you — looking under the hood of the piece to see what makes it tick, separating fact from hype and hyperbole, then figuring out how best to present those facts, crafting the piece so it has structure and style, so that each thought leads seamlessly from the previous one and sets up the next, each graf is a natural successor to the previous one…
Typically, I did this late at night while the house was asleep, laboring for three, four hours each day and, once a week, presenting my friend [I mentioned her by name once, in a blog post, and got an earful, so I’ll leave her unnamed here] with the results for her critiques.
She also gave me another valuable — and ultimately, time consuming — bit of advice. When you come across a passage that particularly appeals to you, she said, try copying it out in long hand. The point, according to her, was that writing out great passages helped you absorb a sense of the rhythms and styles of writing; over time, they’d become part of muscle memory.
I was skeptical. She was not amused. Have you, she asked me then, ever visited an art gallery? Have you seen budding artists sitting in front of great paintings, and painstakingly copying them? Why do you suppose they do that? Because the process teaches you about strokes, textures, techniques of the masters — and over time, such exercises help make these techniques an integral part of your own skills.
It didn’t make sense at the time, but I did it anyway. [It was fairly hard to refuse my friend — she had the habit of asking what passages I had liked enough to copy down, lately]. And in time, as journalism went from being a vague notion to a dream to my profession, I realized the value of her advice.
I was reminded of all this by Amit Varma’s latest column: “Give me 10,000 hours.”
Natural talent alone isn’t enough to make you good. You have to work damn hard, and practice damn hard. Some researchers have even put a number to how many hours of practice you need to achieve excellence: 10,000 hours.
Another visual, to drive home the message 🙂 And a song, to round it all off.