As I write this, my younger son sits upstairs taking his fifth chess lesson. The lessons were a birthday gift, one he’s been asking for for more than a year. Finally we succumbed. This very nice chess champion (Paul) now comes to our home once a week to discuss the theory and practice of chess with our ten-year-old (who can whup the pants off everyone else in the house!)
I’ve been sitting in on some of these lessons. The idea is that I’ll learn some of my son’s tricks, so I’ll be able give him a bit more of a challenge when we play. It’s kind of fun, learning about chess tactics, discovered attacks, pinning and forking pieces, how to calculate force…there’s this whole other language for chess and how to think about the game. But Paul’s first and most important lesson didn’t involve any special chess language, but rather, the theory of learning:
To become a better chess player, you need two things. You need to know tactics (learned by doing chess puzzles and practicing the different techniques) and you need to practice. Practice one without the other and your game will improve slowly, if at all.
Wow. That’s wisdom that applies to writing or, no doubt, to any kind of learning. The practice of writing is important–it helps me become more fluent at putting words to the page. But sometimes, especially as we become more advanced as writers, I think we forget that we need to keep honing our technical skills as well.
Practice and theory: how do you put the idea into practice? Well, if you want to use simile or metaphor in your writing, spend a week doing simile or metaphor exercises. If you want to hone your ability to vary sentence structure, rewrite a passage from your work using a passage from someone else’s work (one that displays great variety in sentence structure) as an example. If you want to improve your ability to write dialog, work through the exercises in Tom Chiarella’s Writing Dialog.
Right now, I’m absorbing a great book about writing techniques, Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style, by Arthur Plotnik. I say “absorbing” because this isn’t the kind of book you plow straight through. It’s the kind of book that you peruse slowly, trying out the techniques along the way.
It reminds me of my son’s book of chess exercises, only for writers. So if you feel your writing might benefit from improvements in tactics as well as straightforward practice, pick up Spunk & Bite, Writing Dialog, or one of the other great writing books out there. And brush up on your writing skills as a foundation for improving your overall writing game!