Perfecting Your Craft When You’re Not Practicing Your Craft

perfecting your craft when you're not practicing your craft

I did it as an experiment. My schedule would soon change and I would have less time to focus on the things I wanted to work on. My attention would be drawn in many new directions, none of which faced my writing.

Writing had become my craft. Some people play music, some paint, and I wrote. Though my schedule was changing, I still wanted to continue honing the craft I’d come to love.

The Need For Practice

When I began writing my first book, I realized my writing was bland. It didn’t involve vivid imagery, I didn’t use colorful metaphors, and I overused terms like “very” instead of coming up with something robust. I discovered these flaws through the editing process and committed to improving. It was a harsh truth to accept, but this was supposed to be “the book I’ve always wanted to read.” Had I published my first draft, I would not have finished reading my own book and there’s no way others would have, either.

I read books on becoming a better writer and I read classic material that gave examples of rich language that has lasted for decades. I ended up rewriting large chunks of material and the end result came out better than what I started with.

Because I focused on it like an animal stalking prey, I received a number of remarks about my writing style. People told me they felt like they were in the story with me. I do my best not to let my ego get too involved, but those were received as compliments. I worked hard to create the scenes they described and I was (and still am) proud of my work.

I found ways to capture details about scenes and people that I hadn’t done before. One way I did this was by visiting scenes I was recreating. I wrote about football games so I went to football games. I described CSU’s campus, so I went to CSU’s campus. I did this for many scenes in the book and recorded minute details that would “show” the reader what it was like to be in that moment through words.

In committing to artistic growth, you have to “refine your skills to support your instincts.” – Linda Ronstadt {(via Rosanne Cash) via Steven Pressfield’s Turning Pro}

Four Eyes

I found myself observing the world through a new pair of lenses. One that made me notice details I hadn’t before. I became more observant of my surroundings and more intentional about how I described everything. This passage from Believe EG21 demonstrates how I used similes and metaphors to recreate scenes for the book:

The symphony of practice was music to the coaches’ ears. Helmets crashed into each other like cymbals. The bass drum of thumping pads could be heard from every corner of the field. Hot breath whistled like the string section as we tried to communicate with mouthpieces clenched between our teeth.

I found this skill to be difficult when writing, and again when editing. I wasn’t, and still am not, a natural wordsmith. But, I improved through months of practice and concentrated focus. At first, I couldn’t turn it off; It just happened. I noticed things and described them to people like I was writing a scene from my book. When I finished editing, though, I felt the skill fading. I didn’t use it that often, so it dulled. I knew this skill wouldn’t stick around unless I intentionally challenged myself to use it.

This art form had become important to my life and I didn’t want to lose it. I intend to continue writing through the blog and I will publish another book; I just don’t know when. So while I’m formulating ideas about the topic of my next book, I have to keep my skills sharp. Like a soldier who goes to the shooting range on his day off, I found a way to practice my craft even when I’m not directly working on it.

The Craftsman Mindset

The Craftsman Mindset is the idea that you should take the long-term approach to getting good at your work. Someone, traditionally, had to go through years of an apprenticeship and working under a master craftsman before they could go out on their own to practice their craft.

Cal Newport, who wrote a book on becoming a craftsman in today’s economy, says that even if you don’t love your job you can get something out of it. What skills can you learn from the position you’re in? How can your job, even if you don’t love what you currently do, help you toward you long-term career goal(s). Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You (which I highly recommend AND which I’m over-simplifying), argues that we should be pursuing the career we want with the mindset of a craftsman. Short-term practice is what makes long-term gains possible. If you apply consistency to your daily routine and practice every day, continually perfecting your craft, you can become extremely good at whatever it is you do. This mastery will open doors you never imagined when you first began practicing.

Most of my readers are not writers, so I’ll use another example. If you’re a salesperson you have to know how to negotiate. You, as a sales person, have opportunities to practice the craft of negotiation all around you. Next time you want to dismiss someone’s opinion because, “it’s stupid,” try to convince them to adopt your point of view. Next time you’re at the farmer’s market, instead of accepting the tagged price, try to negotiate a better one for your produce. These seem small, and they are, but if you make that particular set of skills second nature, you’ll be more than prepared when it counts.

A Way Of Life

I started tweeting descriptive scenes from everyday life to practice my craft. I knew that if I did it only when I felt like it, I wouldn’t get much out of the system of improvement I thought of. It would happen sporadically and I would have some unique tweets from time to time. But it wouldn’t force me to get better.

Now I tweet at least once every day using the hashtag #padw. If you search Twitter for this hashtag, you’ll see tweets I’ve extracted from my everyday life. Some are witty, some are sad, some are good, and some are bad. That’s life and that’s my work. Part of being a pro is doing the work no matter how you feel. If you want to master a craft but haven’t added consistency to your work-diet, you’ll never make it. (One of my favorite books is The War of Art. If you struggle with consistency, pick it up.)

The way I discipline myself to do things every day is to make them a habit instead of a choice. I use an app called Way of Life that helps me check the boxes for the things I deem the most important each day. This is only one tool, find what works for you and set it in place so you don’t have to think about it.

If you can’t directly practice your craft, whether it be writing, negotiating, or some other craft, figure out a way to practice the skills that go along with it. For me, this was observing my surroundings.

What is your craft and how do you practice it? I’d love to hear from you below or on Twitter.