Cross-Writing to Improve Writing Skills

I’m not athletic by any stretch of the imagination, but I do understand the value of cross-training. Wikipedia defines cross-training as follows:

Cross-training is athletic training in sports other than the athlete’s usual sport. The goal is improving overall performance. It takes advantage of the particular effectiveness of one training method to negate the shortcomings of another.

An ice-skater, for example, might include training in bicycling, karate, or even yoga as a way to complement the benefits from on-ice training. According to one expert quoted in a US Figure Skating article on the topic, “placing an athlete in a new environment with different demands awakens their muscles and senses, and refreshes their outlook on training. The change can be invigorating as well as beneficial.”

Writers can use this idea by adding cross-writing to their writing training as a way to use and build different creative muscles. The point of cross-training is not necessarily to become competitive in the new sport but to find new ways to sharpen skills and strengthen muscles. Similarly, when we dip into new genres, forms, lengths, or styles, our goal is not to be perfect or publishable, but to try something new:

  • Non-fiction writers can add poetry to their routine to focus on language and rhythm.
  • Fiction writers can start a blog as a way to write to deadlines and schedules.
  • Poets can write short stories to experiment with descriptions and character.
  • Essayists can write a novel to practice long-term planning and persistence.
  • Literary writers can try science fiction or fantasy to stretch their imaginations.
  • Biographers can write a romance story for the pure fun of it.

I’m sure you can think of more ideas.

The article “A Beginner’s Guide to Cross-Training” at Runner’s World offers these cross-training suggestions, which I’ve tweaked to apply to writers:

Make it regular: This advice is especially good for writers, regardless of whether we are cross-writing. In sports and other arts (music or dance, for example), regular practice is expected. Engaging in the activity “when we feel like it” isn’t enough. Writers, however, easily fall into the trap of waiting for inspiration. Maybe it’s because writing is done alone or there isn’t the tradition of working with a coach or writing doesn’t have the same kind of training program as many other skills. If we make cross-writing a regular part of our schedule (e.g., once or twice a week), we can use it to build a more sustainable writing practice.

Choose one. Once you decide upon another kind of writing to try, stick with it for awhile. Learn what you can by reading books on the form/genre, watching videos, or listening to podcasts. Immerse yourself.

Enjoy yourself! Remember, the goal is not to be published or competitive in the new venture, but to learn from it. Your poetry or science fiction or first novel doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be written.

Let effort be your guide. If the new form of writing feels uncomfortable and you are struggling a bit to meet your daily word count, you are probably doing it right. Remember to have fun (see above), but fun and effort are not mutually exclusive.

Don’t get hurt. Okay, I admit this one is kind of amusing, but here’s my take for writers: Don’t set your expectations so high that you feel bad about your writing for trying something new. Also, be sure to budget enough time for your usual writing tasks and goals. (On the other hand, you might just fall in love with something new and never look back.)

For inspiration, see Christi Craig’s blog post, “The Editor as Poet.”

NaNoWriMo Tips: Use behavioral economics to stay motivated

It’s that time of the year again! No, not election season. If it’s November, it is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

While I don’t plan to participate in NaNoWriMo this year, I do want to piggyback a bit on NaNoWriMo to share writing resources and tips daily throughout November, beginning with some interesting behavioral economics research by Katherine Milkman.

Professor Milkman’s work first came to my attention through her Freakonomics podcast interview, “When Willpower Isn’t Enough,” in which she describes two motivational techniques: temptation bundling and the fresh-start effect.

Temptation Bundling

Think of two activities you want to do, one of which you engage in readily and one of which you tend to avoid. Examples might be listening to a favorite music playlist and cleaning out a cluttered basement. A common strategy would be to reward yourself with the playlist after doing some cleaning or to clean while listening to music.

Temptation bundling takes the second option one step further: listening to the playlist is bundled with cleaning, but you listen to the playlist only while cleaning and at no other time. Milkman explains:

What we’re doing here is basically combining two commitments with each other and they sort of fit like puzzle pieces. So you’re using something that’s instantly gratifying to create a pull to provide the motivation you need to do something that’s unpleasurable at the moment of engagement. And then the other component that’s different is that you can actually have complementarities, which is an econ-speak term for peanut butter and jelly, two things that would go better together and are more enjoyable together than they would be separately. And so, one of the neat things about, for instance, only allowing yourself to watch your favorite TV show while you’re at the gym, is the fact that you might actually enjoy your workout more and you might enjoy the TV show more when you do them together, whereas a traditional commitment device just penalizes some behavior.

For writers, temptation bundling is a bit of a challenge, as it’s hard to multi-task while writing, but we might drink our favorite tea or coffee only when working on NaNoWriMo or some other writing project, or wear a comfy sweater or slippers only when working on our daily word count, or go to a favorite park or coffee shop or museum only when we also write there.

Fresh-Start Effect

Another technique Milkman discusses in the podcast is the fresh-start effect. This one I can relate to a lot (I love new beginnings of any kind). In simplest terms, it means taking advantage of the motivation we feel when we have a fresh start, such as a New Year, new week, new month, or birthday or other holiday. This fresh-start effect helps us to make the initial effort needed for larger goals, an effort that otherwise might seem overwhelming. Milkman explains how this might work:

So one thing we’ve tried is just reminding people that a given day is a fresh start. So, for instance, we have one experiment where we reminded people that a certain day was the first day of spring. And we experimentally compared people who we reminded a certain day was the first day of spring, with another group that we didn’t. And the group that got that first day of spring reminder was more motivated to pursue their goals and receive a reminder about their goals specifically on the first day of spring, when it was labeled as such. And so, you can think about just reframing a given day, reminding someone that it is an opportunity for a fresh start is one intervention that might increase engagement in fresh start behaviors. You could also think about just asking people to do things that are good for them on fresh-start dates. So you might try to roll out, for instance, a planning prompt campaign or offer people an opportunity to sign up for a commitment device or for a temptation bundling device on a fresh start date when we know their natural inclination and their motivation to do things like exercise and diet….

For NaNoWriMo or any long-term writing project, we might build in various fresh starts along the way—planning certain scenes or chapters for Mondays, for example, or even making a big deal about each day’s goal, knowing that the next morning offers a fresh start to succeed all over again.

You can follow Professor Milkman’s research on Twitter and watch her explain temptation bundling in the video below.

What are some other ways that writers can take advantage of temptation bundling and the fresh-start effect?

How to Begin a Story: Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years”

Most writers and other storytellers are familiar with the advice to begin their tale in medias res (in the middle of things), but what, exactly, does that look like?

Andrew Haigh, writer and director of the film 45 Years, shows us in this “Behind the Scenes” video of a scene that occurs five minutes into the film, the first time the two main characters are shown together. As you watch it, ask yourself how the tone and point of view and details would be conveyed with writing.

See Also

Dave Grohl on finding your voice

“You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.” ~ Edward de Bono

“There is no right or wrong. There is only your voice.” ~ Dave Grohl

Foo_Fighters_Tenacious_D_concert_in_2011

We all have those days when we need someone or something to help us to see life differently, to change our perception and move us in a different direction, to dig a different rather than simply a deeper hole.

Lianne Stokes’ “The Top 5 Ways to a Better Life According to Dave Grohl” did that for me this week. Here is a taste:

“5. Spark a revolution.

Grohl, on his hope for his small daughters as they grow into women:

‘As a proud father, I pray that someday that they are left to their own devices, that they realize that the musician comes first, and that THEY find THEIR VOICE, and that THEY become someone’s Edgar Winter. THEY become someone’s Beatles and that THEY incite a riot, or an emotion, or start a revolution, or save someone’s life.’

Always have the highest bar for yourself. Wake up everyday and no matter how crappy you feel, want to change something for the better. Even if that day it means organizing your grandmother’s spice rack. Do something that makes someone happy. Create something that inspires someone. Be someone’s light when they are hopeless. Or just eat an amazing sandwich. You know, a really good sandwich is a total game changer.”

You can watch Grohl’s address in its entirety at the end of Lianne’s piece (note that there are f-bombs a-plenty). One of my favorite parts of his talk is about voice. While he is referring to a musician’s voice, we can easily substitute “writer” and similar words, as I did below [in square brackets]:

“What matters most is that it’s your voice. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it’s … gone because every human being is blessed with at least that, and who knows how long it will last? It’s there if you want it. Now, more than ever, independence as a [writer] has been blessed by the advance of technology, making it easier for any inspired young [writer] to start their own [journal], write their own [story], record their own [narrative], book their own shows, write and publish their own fanzine—although now I believe you call it a blog? Now more than ever, you can do this, and it can be all yours, and left to your own devices, you can find your voice.”

What will you write to find your voice today?

Photo of Dave Grohl by remixyourface (Flickr: Foo Fighters Tenacious D concert in 2011) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Root Out Those Adverbs

on-writing-stephen-king-tenth-anniversary2“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day…fifty the day after that…and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.”

~ Stephen King, On Writing