5 obstacles to better writing—and how to overcome them

Becoming a better writer involves challenges similar to the challenges of learning to play the piano, this author contends. Here are her tips for emerging victorious at both.

It astonishes me that every time I cite a principle that I’ve mentioned what feels like a million times (mind-mapping, for example), some readers are surprised.

Am I speaking Greek, I wonder? Are there really people who’ve missed my mighty obsession with mind-mapping?

I had some insight into this quandary recently, thanks to my piano lessons. I’ve noticed that my teacher has to mention principles many times before I respond. For example:

  • The 123 1234 123 12345 finger pattern of playing right-handed scales.
  • The wisdom of practicing as little as three bars in a piece many times and playing the entire piece far less frequently. This is breathtakingly easy to resolve to do, yet so damned difficult for me to actually do!
  • The need to play really slowly until I coordinate both hands. (I’m inclined to rush, and then I become frustrated by the difficulty of playing.)

Although I am thrilled to learn the piano (a lifetime goal) and adore my thoughtful and sympathetic teacher, I also receive an unexpected gift from my weekly lesson: the insight it gives me into teaching others.

I have the usual share of not-so-attractive qualities bedeviling all humans, but I’ve never been a slow learner. Nor do I shy away from hard work. So, why do I find playing the piano so difficult? (And, perhaps, why do you find it so hard to write?) There are five reasons:

1. There’s the inevitable two-steps-forward-one-step-back quality to the enterprise.

Learning isn’t easy. We have to expose ourselves to ideas and concepts many times before they become secure in our brains.

2. Not all teachers teach in ways that work for all students.

I’ve always emphasized the importance of stories, but I learned from a friend years ago that that the word “story” meant nothing to her. She needed to hear “examples” before she understood what I was talking about.

3. Learning takes longer the older we get.

The upside, however, is we tend to have more patience when we age. Here are my other thoughts on the benefits of the aging writing brain.

4. Learning must be fun.

Did you know willpower is a limited resource? If you’re accomplishing something only through willpower, at some point (maybe even soon) you will fail. You’re better off building some fun into your practice to increase your motivation. I’ve finally learned to save my favorite piece of piano music for the end of my practice.

5. Practice makes accomplishment possible.

No one gets better at anything—piano, running, cooking, playing tennis, writing—without practice.

The worst thing I did with my piano practice was take a break last summer. I didn’t touch the keys from June 21 to Sept. 20. I wanted to relax and take it easy for a while. This was a grave error, because I broke my practice habit. It’s now January and, after three months, I feel as though I’m barely getting re-established.

I won’t do that again. Next summer I’ll cut my practice time in half rather than abandon it.

How are your writing habits? Now that I’ve started on my second book, I’m getting up early and writing for 30 minutes five mornings a week. Because I’ve done this before, the habit feels as comfortable as a soft leather glove, perfectly fitted to my hand. I began by setting my daily word count goal at a modest 250 words (seeking Kaizen), but I’ll be able to raise it to 400 words within a week.

Learning to write—like learning to play the piano—has little to do with willpower and much more to do with habit.

A version of this article originally appeared on The Measurement Standard.

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