3 Killer Writing Drills
Getting good at anything, unless you’re some kind of Bobby Fisher-esque savant or unusual talent, requires breaking that anything into its constituent parts and practicing said constituents. Think about teaching one of your clients to hinge, squat, push, and/or pull. More often than not you have to give those breaks a taparoo and dial back the complexity by taking some joints out of the movement, dialing back the loading, or taking the movement closer to the ground. Then you drill until proficiency blossoms—after that momentum carries the whole deal forward toward excellency. But the drills, they never go away. They’re always there like a safety net made of white, fluffy cotton to catch us and redirect us when we experience a temporary lapse in skill.
Consider anything you’ve ever gotten good at. Forget about your clients for a minute. Let’s talk about you, baby. Have you ever played a musical instrument? If you have, and you’ve had any semblance of decent instruction, you likely learned how to play a note, then you learned some actual notes and scales, then you learned how to put all of that together into meaningful melodies, rhythms, and harmonies. And at each stage you practiced, practiced, practiced (A.K.A. drilled) to get it right. After keeping at it for a while, you got pretty good.
And each time you’d drill, you’d focus on improving, if only minutely, at one aspect of the quality you were working to develop. With that improvement you’d return to the fun stuff, actually playing songs, and your playing would be better. You’d be on time, your rhythm in cadence, and your melodies bright and crisp.
Miyamoto Musashi, the famous Japanese philosopher and swordsman, is quoted as saying, “If you know the Way broadly, you will see it in all things.” I essentially used the three paragraphs preceding this one to illustrate what he said simply in one sentence. Getting good at anything requires attention, evaluation of current skills, practice and drilling based on that evaluation, diligence, and utilizing those skills in a meaningful manner. Writing, of course, is no different than learning to hinge or learning a musical instrument. The Way is in all things.
Since there’s no way for us to do a critical evaluation of your writing and custom design a plan to improve it, I’m offering you three drills to address and improve three generally encompassing aspects of your writing.
One to get you to write. One to draw out observable details and expand on them. One to work narrative form.
Hot Pen Technique
During downtime between big writing projects, I bring myself down my stairs each morning and I sit either in front of my lap top or my content development notebook and I write for ten minutes. There’s no consideration of subject matter and no real direction. I just write. I built this habit into my morning routine mostly to stay in the habit and rhythm of writing even though I wasn’t working on a project—I didn’t want to lose my mojo, you know?
But as I continued on doing it for months at a time, I noticed something interesting. Actual interesting ideas, and things I didn’t even realized that I knew or believed, just started pouring out of my head. And something else happened. When I worked on a blog or article, I found it easier to just let myself write.
Flash forward to 2018 and a considerable amount of business, and personal, visioning work sponsored by Ari Weinzweig and his book A Lapsed Anarchist’s Guide to Building a Great Business. Ari describes the drill I discussed above as the “Hot Pen Technique.” Using this technique, Chris and I started writing a vision for growing Beyond Strength Performance NOVA, and I took it to my personal life to work on weekly visions, describing to myself how I’d like my week to go before it started.
From my personal experience, and from the numberless conversations I’ve had over the years, I’ve gathered that one of the biggest issues holding people back from writing, and getting good at it, is that they just won’t let themselves write. The, profoundly yet annoying, human characteristic of “getting in our own way” causes us to judge and edit our writing before we even complete a thought. That’s why Ari found this technique so useful for visioning. The future is scary and writing about it feels like a scary commitment to the ideas in our head. But if we don’t get them out, we can’t shape them. We have to get them out first—and Hot Pen gives us cause to do that.
So, here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to set a timer for whatever amount of time seems manageable to you—five minutes, ten minutes, whatever—and you’re just going to write. Don’t give your fingers a break from the keyboard or don’t let your pen stop moving. For the entirety of the time allotment, just fucking write. Don’t edit. Don’t think too much about what’s coming out of your head. Just fucking write.
Play with this. Maybe just try it once and see how it feels. Maybe make it a part of your daily routine. If you want to write, and you feel like you’re getting in your own way and not letting yourself, I’d recommend making it a part of your daily routine while being sensitive to the fact that you should select a time allotment that sincerely feels manageable to you.
But just fucking write.
Write Small to Write Big
As it goes with most things, we often try to accomplish too much with our writing and it ends up sinking our feet fearfully into the mud of writer’s block. It’s the same as setting non-descript goal using a timeframe that’s far larger than you can realistically idealize. The Way is broad, remember? When we start writing too big, or about too large of a subject at once, the details get lost and we get stuck.
In my favorite book of all time, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig’s character Phaedrus has a university student that’s struggling to complete a simple writing assignment. She decided to write an essay about her entire town, but each time she begins writing nothing comes out. She has no idea what to say, no details present themselves to be described.
The student returns to Phaedrus and describes her problem. He prods her to shrink the subject matter even more. How about just starting with a street in your town?She tries and again she’s stuck faster than a tick on a dog’s ass. They shrink to a single building on a street in the town. She still struggles.
Finally, they arrive at the smallest observable unit of the building in the town—a single brick. Pick a brick and describe the brick. She does and voila! A blank page transforms into a colorful essay about the brick, about the building, about the town. When she narrowed her vision and started with a subject matter she could observe easily and describe simply, the details came. And with the details came the connections to other details and ideas that allowed her to expand her writing.
She wasn’t the only one of Phaedrus’ students struggling with their writing, the problem persisted throughout his classes. Phaedrus applied what he learned broadly, he had his students write small.
During one class that was full of students having a particularly hard time with writing, he had them describe the back of a dime. They could use as much time as they wanted—the entire duration of the class if they so chose—to write about the dime. Heads were down and pens were swirling until dismissal. Writing small won again.
So, that’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to write small. Pull out a dime, pick a brick, or choose some other seemingly miniscule and mundane object around you and describe it. I’m not going to give you any instructions beyond picking an object and describing it. You’ll see where it takes you.
Use a Prompt to Tell a Story
We’re primed for stories. Narratives have been the main source of communication, and education, between humans for millennia. Our brains not only thirst for stories, but automatically fill in gaps with narratives so that we can make sense out of the world. To say that people want to read, hear, watch stories is the understatement of a lifetime. But we ignore this truth that’s existed since before time was time and will exist long after we’ve all become worm food. Our content gets stiff and unrelatable because we focus on subject matter rather than building a bridge between the reader and the subject by using a story.
When I first started getting paid for my writing I totally disregarded the importance of stories. In truth, I probably shouldn’t have been getting paid. As an egotistical 23-yearold I thought people just wanted really smart ideas from a guy that seemed smart and was doing smart things. I, ladies and gentleman, was an asshole.
I wasn’t getting the engagement with my writing that I wanted—and it seemed as though folks weren’t totally understanding what I was trying to say. It was partly because I wasn’t expressing my ideas as clearly as I could have been, but it was also because I wasn’t helping people connect with the material in a way that they wanted to. Then I tried something.
On our Beyond Strength Performance blog I started telling stories about things going on in my personal life. My struggles as a coach and person, things that happened with clients I was training, why I was so often constipated. (You’d be surprised how much folks care about your regularity.) As I started telling more stories, my work started getting shared more often. Readers started emailing me. My words began having the effect that I wanted them to. Narratives saved my writing.
Letting yourself write and writing small to write big are absolutely imperative to improving your writing. But once you’ve freely let your ideas flow and you’ve learned to capture details, learning to form those ideas and details into a story that connects and expresses them is the next step in expanding as a writer.
Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to tell a story about the last time you made breakfast using this framework:
What happened in the immediate time before you made breakfast? What was going down in your hood?
What problem were you facing that caused you to cook that breakfast? How hungry of a sumbitch were you?
Listen, breakfast often seems easy to cook, but it comes with its own set of challenges. What challenges did you face cooking breakfast?
And since you successfully ate that breakfast, what did you do to overcome those challenges? How did you use your skills to slay the dragon of scrambled eggs…or whatever it is you made?
What was the ultimate resolution? How did you reach satiety and how did affect the situation up in your belly and hood?
I know, I know. It seems silly. It is. But it’s also fun and a simple way to work on telling a story. If, however, you can tell a story about making breakfast, you can probably tell a story about anything…including the important work you do every day for your clients.
Drill, Drill, Drill
Decide where these drills fit into your day or week and try them out, and keep working them in. Return to your regular writing and observe the impact. With the context you’ve gained from trying these drills you’ll learn more about yourself as a writer and what you need to do to improve your writing—at least as it relates to these three components of writing.
But, if nothing else, just fucking write.