Here’s a Nordic mountain who wants to improve himself.  You can tell because he’s frowning and stymied and the other mountains are feeling quite sorry for him.

Himmeltindan near Mærvoll, Vestvågøy Island, Lofoten Islands, Norway
Himmeltindan near Mærvoll, Vestvågøy Island, Lofoten Islands, Norway

What I mean to say is, how do you improve yourself?

Without the context of other writing, one could be reasonably content in an oblivion of terrible-ness for their entire life (and I think some authors are, but because they’re happy, we should just leave them there).  When we first look outside of ourselves, we discover that we’re not actually the best at what we do, whether it’s writing or badminton or being a decently helpful human being.

(This reminds me: Bill Gates can now turn poop into drinking water, and I thought that finishing another chapter of book two was an accomplishment…

So you’ve seen that you’re not the best–in fact, probably not even close–but that doesn’t mean that you can’t improve your craft.  And just pushing through it and writing more won’t cut it.  Getting better means doing a lot of smart work.

I learned a neat little trick when I was studying music at James Madison University that I have begun to apply to nearly every facet of my life.  And that trick is the use of parentheses.    (these guys)

Here’s how it worked: I’d play through and etude, and 90% of it was okay, but then I’d get to that 10% where the shit would hit the fan.  I avoided utter embarrassment by employing the musical equivalent of cursing under your breath so that your mother can’t hear you (which never fools anyone, if you’re wondering).

By now you’re probably asking, geez, man, how does this apply to writing and/or life in general?  I was gravely misled by your first sentence! To which I’d say: Of course you were, my first sentence was about a self-aware mountain in Norway!

This is where using parentheses comes in.  Because when I was practicing those etudes, I’d start at the beginning, and play through all the stuff that was pretty easy and sounded okay.  I was essentially patting myself on the back, stoking the trumpet-ego, and accidentally playing things that would make me think ‘damn, Zach, that sounds really good!’ By the time I reached the sections that actually needed work, I was tired, unfocused, but more importantly, thought that I was better than I was.

New strategy: Step 1) throw parentheses around the sections that are god-awful, Step 2) practice stuff within parentheses until your weaknesses become your strengths, Step 3) Apply to life and profit.

If you want to improve your writing, break down the steps writers use to create books:

Bad at dialogue?  Don’t avoid it, write a scene using ONLY dialogue until you’re a total dialogue badass.

or, a description-writing badass

or, an outlining machine

or, you get the picture…

Don’t let the other aspects of your skill (writing, bowling, etcetera) go un-practiced, but if you only have one hour every day to write/bowl/etc., you need to use that time as effectively as possible by working on the aspects of your writing/bowling/etceteraing that needs the most help.

When your biggest weakness becomes one of your strengths, remove the parentheses, reevaluate, and only then, when you think you can’t get any better *evil chuckle* find a new place to put parentheses!

Don’t steal my words.  They’re mine. ©

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