Do What You Can’t: 10 Writing Skills Worth Practice

I’ve been re-reading my favorite book on personal growth and development, Change Anything by Kerry Patterson and company, and once again I’m struck by how it applies to the writing life as well as to the standard life challenges of weight loss and credit card debt.

In the first half of the book, the authors discuss six sources of influence on our behavior (and out ability to change) based on our motivation and abilities:

6 Sources

I wrote about the first source of influence—“Love What You Hate,” or how to increase your personal motivation, here. The second source of influence is personal ability, which the authors call “Do What You Can’t.”

I didn’t get this one on my first read of the book. Do what you can’t? If you can’t, how the heck are you supposed to do it? Their point, however, is that if you want to successfully effect change in your life, you need to identify the skills that that change requires. Willpower alone is rarely the problem, and they go so far as to say “Personal motivation is the “big dumb one” in your personal-change arsenal. It hunkers down, toughs it out, and pushes hard against all odds, even when the easier solution might be simply to work smarter.”

This isn’t really a writing book, but I think its lessons are applicable to writing. I challenge you to ask yourself two questions:

  1. How do I want to grow as a writer?For instance:
    • Areas of weakness: Identify your weaknesses as a writer or person. It may be helpful to ask a friend or critique partner to help you see blind spots.
    • Craft skills: Do you want to write more quickly? Improve your ability to write dialog? Improve your ability to use metaphor?
  2. What writing skills do I need to do so?
    • These can include writing craft skills, such as those above.
    • They might also include strategies for dealing with obstacles you might face as a writer, such as distractions, rejection, and discouragement.

To get you started, here are some of the skills I think are worth practice—and some resources to help you start practicing:

writing in flowword magic senses writers journey  page after page

  1. Freewriting: Freewriting, or stream-of-consciousness writing, is a great way to practice silencing your inner editor long enough for your subconscious to push ideas to the surface. Resource: Ten Reasons to Practice Freewriting, Writing in Flow, and Write or Die!
  2. Use of simile:  Coming up with a great simile might be second nature for some, but most of us struggle to come up with comparisons that are vivid, concise, and not cliché. Resources: Word Magic, Theory and Practice.
  3. Use of metaphor: Same idea, different skill. Check out Symbolism and All That for ideas.
  4. Use of sensory details in description: There’s no surer way to draw your reader into the scene than by including that perfect scent or taste. For inspiration, check out The Natural History of the Senses and The Bookshelf Muse
  5. Character creation: The Bookshelf Muse has some great character trait ideas. See also Character Archetypes, Four Ways to Use Meyers-Briggs Personality Types in Your Novels, and Character Quirks on this blog.
  6. Giving and receiving critiques: You might wonder how you can practice receiving a critique—but it’s the same as practicing for a job interview. Think about the possible scenarios and plan out how you will respond. For insight, visit Working Within a Critique Group and 5 Keys to Giving Constructive Writing Critiques
  7. Plotting the hero’s journey: Chris Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey, is a great—if dense—overview of the hero’s journey. For an alternative approach, read A New Character-Driven Hero’s Journey.
  8. Writing discipline: One writer shares inspiration in Finding Time to Write. Other helpful posts include Stepcase Lifehack’s 7 Wise Ways to Find Focus and Get Things Done, Men With Pens’ How to Manage Your Energy, and Heather Sellers’ Page After Page.
  9. Organization of story notes, ideas, research, etc: Check out How a Simple Bag Became a Magic Organizational Tool, How to Use Evernote to Organize Your Writing, and Organizing Book Notes for strategies and ideas. And, of course, I just blogged about this here.
  10. Dealing with rejection: If you’ve ever submitted anything, you’ve probably faced the dreaded rejection letter. So what do you do next? It can flatten you—or you can create a list of strategies to help you keep going. Here are a few posts on how other authors cope with rejection:  Celebrating Rejection and Transforming Negative Energy Into Positive Ambition

What writing skills are you going to practice this week?

The hidden price of "productivity" every writer needs to know -

You’ve probably read the same tips I have: Have a smart phone? Check Facebook while standing in line at the post office! Respond to Twitter messages while waiting for your dentist! Catch up on your news feed while sitting on the pot! For years, I thought the path to increased productivity was to squeeze in MORE–more […]


  1. says

    Lots of great resources here, thanks! This week? I’m working on dialogue…

    • Cheryl Reif says

      Dialog! Have any good resources to share?

  2. says


    What a great post! As usual, you are full of great ideas and resources. I want to get my hands on the Word Magic and Symbolism books.

    I love the new look of your blog. You rock!

    • Cheryl Reif says

      Hi Pam, thanks for stopping by! I love the Word Magic book. It’s very information-dense, not the kind of thing you read from cover to cover, but terrific. Thanks for the blog-warming :)