I’m happy if I can write three good paragraphs in a row. In my now dead book project of 60,000 words, I probably had 11 or 12 instances in which I produced a set of three good paragraphs. I still liked the work overall but only those groupings approached what I’d call memorable writing or perhaps great writing.
Certainly my book did not compare to what the great writers produce routinely page after page. What’s happening here? Shouldn’t I have more to show after writing for work and publication since 1994? After all, I have practiced and struggled and endlessly edited and researched and read dozens of great writers. Yet, I’m happy to achieve only three good paragraphs in a row? Shouldn’t there be more? Perhaps not.
Practice does not necessarily lead to greatness. Ray Bradbury advocated writing several thousand words each and every day but that only leads to better discipline. Hunter Thompson once wrote that before he went into a coffee shop, he stole a newspaper, “just to keep in practice.” I can’t do that. I’m not that witty. I don’t have his imagination or his life experience to make a casual remark like that seem funny and convincing. Your high school English class won’t teach you that and Journalism School won’t teach you that.
Orwell’s first novel is wonderful and depressing at the same time. In his twenties he wrote a work that I cannot and will never match if were to keep practicing for another hundred years. Great writing involves not just practice, intelligent and diligent research, fretting over word selection over hours or days, but inspiration and insight as well. I understand there are comedian schools but I doubt they will produce a Mark Twain, a Will Rogers, or a Jerry Seinfeld. Practice all you want, but realize there are other things at work with great writing.
I consider myself a draft horse rather than a thoroughbred. Like a Clydesdale or a Friesian, I can pull my weight and get the job done. I finish my assignments. Like a Friesian sometimes used for dressage, I can be showy at times but I am still a draft horse. As working writers, we need to be proud of what we do, even if we can never measure up to our heroes.
Too often practice is said to be the way to greatness when that may never be enough. If you look at long distance runners, every one of them is trying equally hard. If you look more closely, though, many have genetically superior physical characteristics which help them push into elite, world class status. A different body type exists for most athletes and you’re not going to be a superior volleyball player if you are a male who is 5′ 4″ tall, no matter how much you practice.
The thing is, get better at what you do. Meet deadline, meet word count, listen to your editor. Produce clean copy. Double and triple check your research. Pare down word count.
With the exception of the Corvette, the early 1960s produced a number of stodgy looking American vehicles until the 1964 1/2 Mustang came along. Where did that design come from? Completely different, beautiful looking, instantly popular. A design later destroyed by people who had to fiddle with it. The same weight of sheet metal as in a 1964 Dodge, yet much better looking. Same thing with words. We all have equal access to them, but who is better at making them go together? This is beyond practice and into art.