Your writing rehearsal.

flowers in a vase

When you sit down to write, how much time do you give yourself to practice? I mean the off-record stuff: writing exercises and warm ups.

Now think of the way dancers or musicians interact with their art. The performance, the finished piece, is the culmination of hours of practice: boring warm ups, weird experiments, and repetitive rehearsals.

When is your writing rehearsal?

Be honest: are you the kind of writer who feels like writing exercises are a waste of time? When you sit down to write, do you always feel you should focus and work on your story?

Your story is important. Finishing it is important. The workshop - the critique and feedback - this is important, too.

But it is not of primary importance. Your finished work is simply the performance piece of your writing life.

There is so much more to your writing than the finished piece.

If you are:

a) learning about your voice and style,
b) writing and compiling stories for your first book, or
c) starting a new writing project

… you need to make time for practice.

It will feel unproductive. Maybe you even have a voice in your head that tells you that writing exercises are counter-productive, and you always skip them to get to your "real" writing.

Do musicians have this problem? Do dancers ever feel that they're wasting their time when they warm up?

Look, writing practice isn't going to check anything off your to-do list.

But your to-do list is not your art.  


Here is why you should practice with warm-ups and writing exercises:

1. It shows you how to recognize your resistance as resistance. This is crucial, because if you don't recognize it for what it is, then you won't write very often. Or you'll push yourself and suffer through writing in an ugly way.

2. You'll know what a certain discomfort feels like in your body when you write something that feels honest. You'll do this over and over again in your practice, and learn how it feels different when you write stereotypes and clichés. So even though it's always going to be challenging, you become more familiar with the feeling of writing what feels real.

3. You'll be surprised by your own writing. You'll learn things about your characters, your sentences, and your stories that you didn't expect. You'll find delight and pleasure in your creative life.

4. You get better at it. Good writers are writers who practice writing.


It's obvious, right?

So why do writers think that their art form is special and different and that it doesn't require practice?

For the love of all things, please don't skip the writing exercises. Just do them, okay? Practice. It's actually how we learn how to do what we want to do. At any level.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. How do you see "practice" happening in your writing? What does it mean to you, and how do you justify taking time to warm up? What happens if you don't practice?

Share your stories, please, in the comments below.

xo,  

Sarah” width=

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Not knowing is the goal.

31 comments

Hi, Sarah There is so much merit in what you have shared today. I agree with all the points. Your analogy with musicians and dancers is spot on. I might add that you could say that about any skill set. Practice is crucial. It has to become a habit. Wasn't it Malcolm Gladwell who wrote about spending thousand and thousand of hours on skill building? I call what you describe in your blog rehearsal. And to your list of extremely valuable rehearsal techniques, I would add the importance of reading, in my case, short fiction. Everyday I read one and often more than one short fiction story. Another day I might reread a short fiction sample. And these are not my short fiction pieces. These are samples from other writers whom I admire and those that I would not normally read. In fact, I often ask editors of magazines and newspapers for whom I review books to send me authors of short fictions whom I do not normally select to read. Why? For the reasons you outlined in the four points above: to learn about discomfort by reading someone unfamiliar and different than my style, to get better at reading and therefore at writing, especially if I mimic the style or use the first sentence of that person's story, to offer myself surprises and to move past resistance. Thanks for the articles. I get something out of each article.
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Nikki Reklitis

I value practice as much as I value time spent on my stories in progress. That said, I find one of the most daunting and overwhelming decisions to be how to divide my time between these tasks. It's this decision-making that gets me rattled. How do others organize and manage their time around writing practice, writing new work, developing current work,etc?
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Nikki Reklitis

I should add that my writing exercises and warm ups go in a notebook titled Free Writes. I work on my stories in progress in a large, sectioned, lined notebook. My later drafts of stories get typed into the computer and printed out, placed in a binder. This is where I go for pieces to bring to workshops and where I go to cut stories up and get back feedback. But, again, organizing time around these various tasks: where I'm stumped. I find early mornings (when my daughter is not awake) better for free writes and exercises. I haven't found a perfect time for the rest. Would love to hear from others on similar battles.
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Carmen Wampler-Collins

I really enjoy practice, but also struggle to keep doing it consistently with everything else I have going on. I think it's crucial and really fun. I actually put it on my to-do list, because that makes it a priority and I DO get to check something off.
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Emily Coon

Natalie Goldberg refers to it as "composting" in Writing Down the Bones. I find that in my writing, if I don't practice I don't have anything interesting to draw from. Recently I've had to force myself away from the 'focus only on this story' mentality, because while it feels more productive -- look at how many hours I'm spending on my story! -- it actually leads to a worse result than the messy, maybe-this-writing-is-about-the-story-and-maybe-not scribbling.
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Kelley Burrus

Ironic how I mediated on clarity this morning and BOOM! this shows up. "Your finished work is simply the performance piece of your writing life." Brilliant. Thanks for sharing. Truly.
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Paul Handover

That's a very valuable reminder for this frustrated author-in-waiting!
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Great teaching here Sarah, thank you! Every art form practices their craft - timely reminder! Nikki, I too prefer early mornings best for free writes and exercises. That's why I check daily prompts first thing in the morning after my meditation. I'm centred and quiet and the 'noise' of the day hasn't crept into my head. I appreciate how you've organised your different note books - I might try that (am in the process of sorting and purging). Is there a perfect time for the rest? I'm not sure there is. I find that I have to grab the stories, notes, ideas as they pass through my head or I lose them. I teach all day and with marking and planning, my own writing can easily get pushed into the dark corner. When I take a breath and pick up my pen and touch the page, I reconnect with what I need. Sometimes what I think I'm going to work on changes. But that's o.k. I think I read this bit of advice here, but I can't remember :-) Instead of checking email (again), write. Instead of (insert distraction here), write. That helps me. Cheers, Sheryl
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Ah, Sarah, this is so timely for me. Just today I was emailing with a good writer friend and whining about how I'm still struggling to create a writing routine. I said in my email that when I write for 20 or 30 minutes, doing free writing or prompts, that it doesn't feel like "meaningful" writing. Even as I typed it, I knew that was BS. But in my head I believe that if I don't write for chunks of time on a work in progress, what I'm doing ultimately isn't that "important." BUT, my darling friend wrote back, "I would argue that all writing is meaningful." And then I spotted this blog post. Touche, universe. I get it now. I even used to practice -and teach!- the flute for years when I was younger. Warm ups were my least favorite part of the process, but they were so crucial and I knew that instinctively. I don't know why I treat my writing practice any different than I treated my music practice. This was a perfect reminder for me today, Sarah. I'll be diving back into my daily free writing now :) xo, Kristin
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Thank you for your reminders. I need to get rid of this mental block which makes me feel I am not good enough. Cheers! ;)
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I like what your writer friend told you, "“I would argue that all writing is meaningful.” I always felt nothing made sense when I write. A huge thank you to your dear friend! ;)
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isabel hare

I only manage to do writing practise and feel frustrated at my lack of time and space to do more. I have 2 school children, a dog and a full time job. I adore writing and have written creatively since I could hold a pencil. Wriiten creatively written since I leatny
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Eleanor Beaton

I love the idea of practice - but is this really the same thing as a warm-up? I'm intrigued. I have a regular writing practice, and I'm working hard on finishing my novel. The time crunch - doing the work and then doing the other work to pay the mortgage - is always a challenge. But I'm fascinated to see how a warm-up exercise - unrelated to the novel I'm working on - could help. Great post, Sarah!
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Hi Sarah. What a great article! My colleague passed it over to me this morning. It's such a great analogy, logical, inspiring. And I'm so impressed by all the respondents who do this. Ok, so I am one of those people who doesn't practice because yeah, I always feel like I will be wasting my time. How can I waste time and perfectly good writing just "playing around" and "not getting anything done." It's so crazy now that I read your so true insights : ). But I have to admit, it will be a struggle to make myself do it. Kristen, you crack me up! "Whining" about how you're struggling to find a writing routine -- that made me laugh because I could see myself in that statement. I get it. I am that statement. Why is it so great to hear others' similar misery? : ) So, alright, Sarah, I believe in what you say, in principle. I have this great book about writing a friend gave me years and years ago and while I loved the prose, thoughts and anecdotes within, I did not take up the practice writing assignments. I will dust it off and try. Wish me luck!
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Sarah Selecky

Cindy, yeah! Reading is definitely a rehearsal. I love that you've brought that to this conversation. Thank you. (Also yes to the Gladwell reminder - exactly.)
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Sarah Selecky

Nikki, I have the very same notebook organization system. I need the structure to make sense of the chaos I think. But I'll admit: when I look back at my notebooks from years ago, there are traces of my finished work across all venues. My separation is illusory. I've decided that it's more than okay - whatever works, I'll do it.
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Sarah Selecky

Emily - thank you for sharing this! I've had the same experience. Our thirst for productivity can work against us creatively. Devoting to practice is a way to train ourselves to override that compulsion, so we can create new material and stay curious.
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Sarah Selecky

Kristin! I'm so glad this hit you at the right time. I think some of the difficulty is because we think that we should know how write already. Playing flute is a "special" skill: you don't play flute when you email, you don't play flute when communicating to your boss or your dentist, etc. Writing creatively is a special skill too, but it's hard to give ourselves permission to take the time we need (practice) to separate left brain writing from right brain writing. It's like separating 2 ply tissue: a quiet and delicate procedure. Requires patience.
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Sarah Selecky

Thanks Eleanor! I'd love to hear what happens when you try using warm-ups before working on your novel. Working on something that's completely unrelated to your focus can be the best way to find a surprise connection. Keep me posted!
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Sarah Selecky

Oh Margaret! Amazing. Okay, so you might have to whisper "override, override" to yourself when you start those exercises - a strong "get it done" mind can be very convincing! Try giving yourself a reminder, like a sticky note above your desk: OVERRIDE. Or any other reminder that will help you stick to your exploration with no purpose. Good luck!
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Michelle Fave

Agreed that practice is essential - I love the freedom of my go to "happy place" even though it IS a discipline and IS on certain days a chore and a pain in the butt. Practice makes the "other" writing easier and sustainable! Great conversation!
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After reading your comment yesterday I signed up for Sarah's daily prompts and was delighted to find one in my inbox this morning. Today, instead of my usual To Do list writing and scanning through emails after yoga, I wrote for 15 minutes on the topic. What a wonderful way to start the creative day. Thank you Sheryl and Sarah!
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Great post, Sarah! I've always found it difficult to explain my practice. I don't do prompts, writing exercises or journaling. I spent nearly 10 years trying and they are methods that don't work for me. It's like how some people pick yoga over Zumba, or the treadmill over a run in the woods. My practice is enhanced when I'm immersed in my subject, working on ideas around the story I want to tell. Reading the work of a writer I consider remarkable. My writing has to have a purpose. I always have several projects on the go and when I sit at my writing desk I listen to myself before deciding what I want to work on. Writing, regardless of the outcome, is the practice.
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Thank you Sarah for bringing this to me, and thank you to everyone else for sharing their beautiful struggles! I haven't learned to set aside time yet (Isabel I too have two school agers, dog and full time job, oh and a husband who works 70+ hours a week). The notion of "practice writing" reminded me, however that I had slipped back into the belief that when I wrote it had to be for a reason/story/development/creating a finished product. I have been reminded that I can just write (Kristen, 20-30 minutes sounds do-able! Maybe I will start with 10 - 15). Indeed, it is as important as training for an athlete - I looked at my first draft of a short story I wrote two years ago and was mentally exhausted by the amount of work ahead. It is time to start training. Have delightful days...
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Sarah, I must confess: of the deviant among us, whose primary vices include avoiding writing exercises and the notion of practice, I am perhaps the lowliest of the low. I have always hated exercises. I've always avoided them. Whenever a workshop is announced at the local Writers' Fed, the first thing I ask is: how much of it is devoted to free writing and exercises? If it's exercise heavy, I'm likely to take a pass. Yet what you say makes so much sense. I want to deny your argument - my inner rebel is grasping for rebuttals, just so I won't have to sit down and do some free writing - but I can't. You win. I'll do some exercises. Sigh! But if I'm going to do exercises, they better be darn good. The best, in fact. I guess it's time I tried Story is a State of Mind. Best, ~D P.S. I've enjoyed reading everyone's commentary immensely. Very enlightening.
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Point number two hit me: you'll start to recognize when you're writing clichés, stereotypes, "lazy" writing. I'm finding that writing and the lessons I'm learning are beginning to permeate my entire day. As an editor, I'm noticing these things more in others' writing. When I write my emails and blog posts and even comments, I'm finding myself erasing phrases that are unoriginal and search for other ways to say them. I'm starting to catch how I use the same words and terms when I'm emailing, tweeting, commenting, and writing. It's challenging me to find new ways of describing how I feel, what I observe, how a character behaves. I think the SSM Lesson 5 exercise, the word association one, is helping me with this, too. And I'm really seeing it in what I read every day. Some writers make me shake my head in appreciate when I read how original their thinking is. Practising that exercise as well as reading feels like priming myself for my writing. I don't practice fiction writing, generally, but I no longer feel it's a waste of time. I just don't do it. I resist it, but I'm not sure why yet. Not because it's a waste of time (on the contrary, it reminds me that I have so much I can tap into for ideas and also helps me get into the state of mind) but rather because, I think, I don't prioritize it. I've made reading a regular part of my day. I start every morning with a short story or two. I read for my job. And every night I read in the bath or in bed. I have a scheduled walk and/or run every day, too. And after reading this post, I think, hey! Why am I not scheduling writing, too? Seriously! This isn't a new idea, but why again am I not doing it?? At the moment I don't have an answer. Whatever it is, I will find it. Maybe I don't need one. Maybe all I need to do is pencil it in. Literally. :)
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Top 10 Reasons Why Writers Don't Practice Writing. # 10. There are only a limited amount of ideas and words available. Once you run out...that's it. # 9. Owwwww…brain cramp….just like a leg cramp but worse! # 8. My writing is perfect and cannot be improved. See how the literary muses are crying. # 7. My writing is terrible and cannot be improved. See how the literary muses are crying. # 6. Stream of consciousness, baby! It's written the way it's meant to be written. # 5. "Practice? We don't need no stinkin' practice!" (with apologies to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) # 4. The classic writing practices seem so boring and counterproductive. How many "Chucks" could a woodchuck write if a woodchuck could write "Chuck" on wood? # 3. Flashback to the 2nd grade and having to write 50 times on the blackboard… I will not write notes in class. I will not write notes in class. I will not write notes in class. I will not write notes in class. I will not write notes in class. # 2. Writers keep coming up with "Top 10 Lists" rather than getting down to the business of writing. # 1. They have not signed up for the motivational and wonderful daily writing prompts from Sarah Selecky! (okay...okay…that's a little schmaltzy…but you get the idea!) Great post! Steve
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This seems so obvious when you present it this way. But as someone with finite writing time, who tends to taskmaster herself when it comes to writing, this is something I haven't allowed myself for years--unless I'm taking a class or gathering with a writing group. In the space of a single post, you've made me reconsider my writing sessions. I'm going to think of writing exercises as my barre work. Thank you!
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I love that this is the advice this week. I just kind of realized this for myself. I warm up to sing, I warm up to act, I even warm up to draw. why don't I warm up to write? What is it in me that thinks that great artists need to be able to create something perfect on the first try? I don't know; it's silly. I am excited to focus on practice these next few weeks in all of my artistic en devours!
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I really like the idea of writing exercises and I truly know that I need them. However, I am just beginning in this writing endeavor and I find the writing exercises overwhelming. Am I doing them correctly? Did I write an actual scene? Was this crafted well? I wish I had a teacher marking them up with red pen and giving me suggestions for ways to improve my writing. Are these exercises valuable for the isolated beginner who really doesn't know what on earth they are doing when it comes to "the craft"?
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Sarah Selecky

Hi Kerri! Yes, of course - these exercises are meant for beginners as well as experienced writers. Making the shift from doing work that is completed and evaluated to work that is creative can be overwhelming... IF you think you must evaluate it to understand its worth. When you do these exercises, it's not the time to evaluate them. You're exploring and experimenting - and learning about craft as you practice. Read this post - Is it good or bad? - for more on this. I hope this helps with the worry!
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