Two weeks ago Austin Kleon interviewed Sam Anderson, a staff writer for The New York Times, on Instagram Live about their work spaces (Sam’s library is enormous!), their appreciation for open dictionaries, and Michel De Montaigne, a mutual influence on both writers. Near the end of their chat (33:40 on the video) Sam mentions an exercise he does (I presume) most mornings:
“I do a morning exercise in my library which I stole from my high school English class. My English teacher was talking about revision and the sentence I remember her putting up at the front of the room on a screen was just the sentence: the man walked. She was like, ‘think about all the different verbs we have in English to describe how somebody moves or walks.’ The man ran. The man shuffled. The man slumped. You can get so much colour and meaning by changing one word in a sentence.”
This is the simple and lasting power of choosing strong nouns and verbs in your writing.
In Writing Down the Bones Natalie Goldberg compared writing practice to running. The more you do it the easier it gets. It’s never easy, but it gets easier. The comparison stuck with me for years until I read Scott H. Young’s Ultralearning this past month. One of the principles in his learning framework is ‘drill’ and the story he uses to illustrate the principle is how Benjamin Franklin learnt to write persuasively by reconstructing passages from one of his favourite magazines The Spectator from memory. That makes me think: who else drills? Athletes.
Fighters spar and hit combos on the punching mitts to prepare for a real fight. Tennis players drill and practice their forehand and backhand before they compete on the court. So why should we not also prepare ourselves for writing in the same way? Perhaps, for some, identifying as a writer is more important than actually writing. Their very identity hinges on the perfection of the next sentence so the mere thought of scribbling words on a page to warm up or straining to remember the order of someone else’s argument to improve your own arguments can unleash heavy resistance.
But not to worry, it gets easier.
Write morning pages. Write notes. Drill. Journal. Get yourself in writing shape.
As Kleon says: do the verb, forget the noun.