One of the most important writing lessons I ever learned came, surprisingly, from my college trumpet instructor.
“Michael,” he’d say with a heavy sigh, pulling off his glasses and rubbing the lenses with the bottom of his shirt. “You know I hate to mow the same grass twice.”
It was a phrase he used a lot, in band and private lessons, whenever someone made a mistake he’d already told them to correct. Because in his mind, once he’d identified a mistake in your performance, you needed to do everything you could to keep it from happening again, for two reasons.
First, because as he said, he doesn’t like to mow the same grass twice. And second (and more importantly), because if you let yourself repeat a mistake, that mistake will start to become a habit.
A bad habit.
And the more you let yourself repeat that habit, the more deeply ingrained it becomes, making it increasingly difficult to fix and slowing your progress as a musician (or artist, or writer). So his suggestion was this: Identify what needs to change, and firmly commit to fixing it now.
So. I was a very average trumpet player. My instructor and I had a great rapport, but he had to tell me to mow the same grass twice, three times, and more often than he ever would have liked, because I just wasn’t focused or passionate enough about trumpet to fully commit to his advice.
But I was focused and passionate enough about fiction to commit to his advice when it came to writing. So I applied his mindset in my creative writing workshops, particularly when I started my MFA.
And I tell you what, everybody. It worked wonders — helping me improve enough in that first year alone to win our MFA program’s top fiction prize and to earn a teaching assistantship.
3 Steps to Quickly Improve Your Writing
With my trumpet instructor’s advice in mind, I put a 3-step process on loop throughout my time in the MFA:
- Share a short story with your fellow writers. (A workshop is great, but online writing friends work too.)
- Sift through everyone’s feedback to find one high-priority “bad habit” in your writing that they seem to be honing in on.
- When you sit down to write your next story, commit to breaking that habit at any cost, even if it means making other mistakes because of it. (New mistakes are better than old mistakes.)
This is How it Went for Me
The first short story I shared in my MFA workshop had a clear issue: the narrator was passive and underdeveloped. One of my classmates called him a “window character,” someone through whom we could observe the other, more interesting characters who actually drove the plot. The rest of the workshop agreed, and looking back at some of my past stories, I realized that passive narrators had become a deeply ingrained habit of mine.
So the next time I wrote a story, I strictly committed myself to writing a more active narrator.
A moderately active narrator. Not perfect, but better than I’d done in a long time. It was progress — me chipping away at the bad habit.
The next story I wrote showed much more progress. It had a highly active narrator, and so did the story after that. And that’s when a new, better habit formed: writing active narrators without even thinking about it. And that let me shift my focus to improve upon something else (such as making all my narrator’s actions stem from their core emotional struggle). And something new again after that (using more figurative language, loosening up my writing voice, etc.).
And that’s how you can improve, too. The goal, again, is to use peer feedback to identify habits in your writing you don’t like, and then to mentally commit to replacing them with habits you want, one by one.
It’s a slightly different way to approach feedback. We tend to primarily use feedback as a way to help us improve an individual story — but it’s also a fantastic opportunity to improve your future first drafts.
You’ll be surprised how quickly your writing improves when you do this.
The key, though, is to commit to tackling just one major habit at a time. Why? Because writing is hard, friends, and fiction is a complex tapestry of various techniques, all coming together at once. That means your attention is always inevitably split while writing, so if you try to fix multiple habits at once, you’ll likely spread your attention too thin to succeed.
So identify a single change you want to see in you writing. Make it happen the next time you write a story, no matter what. Then, before you sit down again to write the next story, find something new you want to change or improve.
You’ll love what happens to your writing when you commit to never mowing the same grass twice.
And when you do, far away, in a brightly-lit college band room in Minnesota, my old instructor will raise a hand to conduct a trumpet ensemble, pause — and smile.
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